It was like hearing a song that reminds you of an old flame, or maybe walking past a bakery and smelling a pie that takes you back to happy days in the kitchen of your youth.
The Garden rocked, fans stood and stomped, the Celtics and Pistons ran up and down the floor, and we remembered what it used to feel like when basketball mattered and the local NBA season stretched sweetly into mid-June.
Eddie House and Ray Allen hit impossible, stake-driving 3-pointers in the final minute to tie the game. The Celtics were on their way to a 21-2 record. They were on their way to 13-0 at home. They were ready to make a statement against the vaunted Detroit Pistons. On national television, no less.
And then it was gone ... in the time it took Chauncey Billups to fake Tony Allen out of his sneakers.
The Celtics committed a series of second-half sins, many down the stretch, coughing up a 10-point lead and dropping an 87-85 decision last night.
The Celtics had this game won. They imploded in a hail of turnovers, bad shots, and bad decisions. When it came to crunch time, the Pistons reminded them that they are the ones who've been there before. Boston had the ball with 5.1 seconds left in a tie game, but Paul Pierce shot too soon (and missed), giving the Pistons 1.7 seconds in which to win. Too much time. Billups up-faked Allen into the rafters and, naturally, got fouled. Naturally, he made both.
"It was one of the biggest tests of the year," said Kevin Garnett, who scored 26 points. "It was a good game for us to learn from. A good game for us to look at. We wanted to see where we actually were."
It was the rarest of the rare: a December pro basketball game that got our attention. And there was no disappointment until the final tenth of a second, when Allen put Billups on the line.
Allen did not stick around to discuss his blunder, but his teammates and coach were forgiving.
"Anyone could have went for that [fake], to be honest," said Garnett.
"It's easy to go to one play and Tony," said Doc Rivers. "But I would go to Tony in the position again."
It was an otherwise thrilling night. We see this once a year when the Patriots play the Colts and a few more times when the Red Sox play the Yankees. And last night, after two months of methodical mashings of NBA tomato cans, the Celtics finally faced their most feared and respected conference rivals.
In a league filled with teams of lightweight kids, this was a duel of grown-up talents. The Pistons came to town a little dubious of Boston's lofty perch atop the league standings. Detroit has won 50 or more games six straight years and has appeared in the conference finals five straight times. Rasheed Wallace reminded his tested teammates that it was the Celtics who had something to prove.
Wallace is right. Most of these Pistons have won a championship. The Celtics have only one player with bling (James Posey, 2005-06 Heat). The Celtics have much to prove between now and April/May/June.
"We had the game," said House. "We beat ourselves."
A win would have given the Celtics the best start in franchise history. Instead, these Celtics are tied with the 1963-64 edition, which also went 20-2, then lost game No. 23.
Red Auerbach took pride in fast starts. He coached in a day when a lot of teams played themselves into shape. NBA clubs would use the first two months as a conditioning exercise. Not Red. He saw November and December as a time to gain an edge, psyche out the rest of the league, and earn home-court advantage for the playoffs.
Red made his guys run in late summer and early fall. The Celtics under Auerbach were not always the best team out of the gate, but they were in better shape than all the others. Ex-teammates still talk about Willie Naulls coming over from the Knicks and blowing his lunch a few times during preseason drills. New York teams traditionally didn't work hard to get ready for the early part of the season.
The 1963-64 Celtics had won five consecutive NBA titles when they broke camp. It was the first year of the post-Cousy era and the guard tandem of Sam and K.C. Jones wanted to prove it was every bit as good as Cooz and Bill Sharman. Tom Heinsohn and Satch Sanders were the starting forwards and a guy named Russell held down the middle. Four of the starters (all except Sam) would eventually serve as head coach of the Celtics. Five players on the roster would make it to the Hall of Fame.
It's almost 40 years since Russell roamed the parquet and coming up on 22 springs since the last Celtics championship. A lot of Garden newbies can't remember life before Rick Pitino and Antoine Walker. They might be ones who thought it was going to be easy last night when the Celtics raced to a 10-point lead over Messrs. Billups, Hamilton, and Wallace.
It felt like the old Garden. Players on the Celtics bench stood for a large portion of the first quarter and at one juncture were told to sit by one of the officials. I don't know about you, but I can't remember anyone ever hollering, "Down in front!" when Pervis Ellison wore those nifty suits and graced the end of the Celtics' bench.
But it's never easy against this Detroit team. The Celtics spit it up in the end. Lesson learned. But it would be fun to see these teams play seven games against one another in May.