The contemporary significance of tonight’s Pistons-Celtics match-up is well documented. For those geezers over 25, it also marks a vivid Back to the Future ride to the late 80s-early 90s when Detroit starred as the C’s number one rival (if only because Celtic Finals appearances against the Lakers were drying up). Aside from the unstable, atomic Tar Heel Rasheed Wallace, the present day face-off lacks the controversial personalities of the old rivalry. We have no Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, Robert "Rabbit Punch" Parish, Kevin McHale, or Danny Ainge to be the lightening rod of ire; even that era’s superstars, Larry and Isiah had qualities sure to irritate the opposing fanbase. The current rivalry also has a short history, with Ainge conjuring up a contender with such improbable alacrity that one fears Danny’s soul may now be owned by a resident of the Netherworld. Nevertheless, the current rivalry is nothing to scoff at. With Pistons and Celtics the two clear-cut Eastern Conference contenders - well - charge up the flux capacitor and have at it for the old and the new guard!
Perhaps someone should have gotten Laimbeer and Mahorn off the WNBA sidelines, because the Pistons started off dreadfully. They missed their first six field goal attempts, while the Celtics opened with a couple of Garnett buckets, a Pierce curl in the lane, and two Rondo specials: a left to right scoop shot high off the glass and a floater in the lane. A Rondo turnover resulted in a breakaway dunk by Richard Hamilton to give the Pistons their first field goal, cutting the Celtics’ early lead to 10-3. Pierce responded with two free throws and a three-pointer and, at 15-3, Flip Saunders called for mercy with a time-out.
After the time-out, the Pistons picked up their intensity, with modest gains in effectiveness. The game became more physical and chippy (like old times), to the point where Ray Allen, perhaps the most unlikely provocateur, drew a technical when he responded to Hamilton’s hand-checking with an elbow to Rip’s throat. The game settled into a slower, more even affair, with Garnett displaying his offensive assertiveness and Rondo going at Billups for a fast break lay-up. Hamilton kept the Pistons afloat.
If there was a unifying theme in the first quarter, it was Rondo’s refusal to back down from Billups. The Pistons clearly looked to isolate Billups on Rondo and Rondo held his ground, right on Chauncey’s shooting hand (resulting in 1-4 shooting and only two points for Billups). Meanwhile Rondo continued his recent assertiveness on offense, taking seven shot attempts and hitting three for six points in the quarter. Perhaps Rondo sought out his offense a little too much at times, but with a 23-13 lead at the end of the quarter the results were none too bad.
The second quarter proved to be more of a challenge for the Celtics. The quarter opened with Pierce, Leon Powe, Tony Allen, Big Baby, and Eddie House on the floor, and they struggled, with the Celtics rapidly losing their lead as they failed to finish drives, avoid fouls, and even, at times, to dribble. For his part, Posey looked like he had spent some significant time at the Tony Allen School of Dribbling Excellence, muffing a couple of drives and creating unforced turnovers. Meanwhile, Detroit’s shooting improved as the Celtics struggled, eventually bringing Detroit to within two points of the Cs.
Doc spent the rest of the quarter tinkering with rotations. Slowly the team evolved back to the first unit, re-gaining control of the game along the way. By the 6:00 mark, the C’s were back up 11 points, which they more or less held onto for the remainder of the quarter.
The physical game continued, with fouls coming fast and furious. The teams were knocking each other around as much as they could get away with (and sometimes more). At one point Ray Allen was called for a foul apparently for placing his private parts in the way of Hamilton’s elbow.
If Rondo was the player of the first quarter, KG was the man of the second. He has clearly recovered from any lingering effects of the abdominal strain and is looking like his old aggressive self. KG finished the half with 20 points on 67% shooting, with four rebounds a couple of steals and an assist for good measure. The Celtics finished the half leading the Pistons 47-37.
The Celtics came out in the third looking like the 1985-86 Cs with physical big men who had enough grace to pass the ball. Perkins continued his solid play, grabbing a couple of rebounds, and cutting to the hoop, taking a pass from Pierce and hitting Garnett underneath for a lay-up. Unfortunately for Perkins, he was also picking up fouls at a rapid rate and had to sit about four minutes in after picking up his fourth.
Meanwhile, Garnett continued his solid shooting with three baskets in the first five minutes of the quarter. Wallace likewise continued his hot hand, despite being hobbled by a clearly painful ankle that he turned before the half. Billups began asserting himself, drawing several fouls (he would end the quarter 11-11 from the line). The Pistons cut the lead to 57-52 with 5:52 left in the half.
Once again, Rondo was going nowhere. He attacked the basket repeatedly, not always wisely, especially after the Pistons chose to switch Hamilton onto him. Rondo had play of the year material, however, on one drive in which he blew by Hamilton and slammed it over Jason Maxiell while absorbing contact that sent his head hard against the parquet. Rondo’s game was not always pretty in the third, but it showed the type of moxie that you want to see from your young point guard going into the playoffs.
Another young Celtic with moxie in the quarter was Big Baby. Davis went up and under for a basket at one point and then later called for the ball in the post and made a solid spin move for two off the glass. The remainder of the quarter was a back and forth struggle between the two teams until the final minute, when a Piston run brought the score to 69-67. Despite good play from the Celtics, this game was tight with 12 minutes left to play
The Pistons quickly tied up the game on a Prince basket to open the quarter. Rondo made several unsuccessful attempts to take the ball to the hoop before remembering that passing is also an option. Heavy fouling continued on both sides, and within the first couple of minutes in the quarter, the Pistons were in foul trouble, particularly Wallace who picked up his fifth early in the quarter. Meanwhile, the Celtics couldn’t seem to buy a basket, and the score remained tied at 9:00.
The score remained tight for three more minutes, with a basket here and a free throw there, and Perk continuing to bring down almost every rebound. KG finally broke the score open with a little fancy footwork, scoring his 31st point of the game (a new high for KG as a Celtic). The teams traded baskets (and fouls).
The real turnaround came at around the six minute mark, when Pierce returned to the game. He quickly put down a three, bringing the Cs’ lead up to 5 and changing the energy of the game. Another Rondo free throw (on a Billups foul) and Pierce bucket and the Cs were suddenly up by 8 points. Rondo then took it in the lane nailed it over Billups (as good as Chauncey was in the third quarter, he was horrible in the fourth) with 2:00 remaining, while drawing the foul and then hitting the free throw to put the Cs up by 11. And that was basically the game.
The final score was 90-78, a deceptively comfortable margin. Player of the game honors have to be shared by KG, a monster all night long with his Celtic high 31 points, and Perk, with a career high 20 rebounds (including 10 in the fourth quarter) and excellent activity on the defensive end. Rondo’s night was highly imperfect with several forced shots (6-16 from the field) and 5 turnovers, but his 16 points, 5 assists and all around scrappy play was thrilling to watch, and it has to give comfort to those who worry that he may be intimidated in the playoffs against the big boys.
There was some high level basketball on display this evening and these two teams match up elegantly. Please, let nothing stand in the way of a Celtic-Pistons conference final. And then let’s party like it’s 1987.