EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 21, 2008

Celts hang tough: Boston takes full advantage of ailing Billups


Bill Burt

BOSTON — Here's what we learned in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Nothing.

I take that back. We learned the Detroit Pistons had better hope and pray that the stinky ointment rubbed on the back of Chauncey Billups' right hamstring does the trick.

Billups stunk about as bad as the ointment as the top-seeded Celtics beat the second-seeded Pistons, 88-79, last night at the TD Banknorth Garden.

It's been awhile since the Celtics played meaningful basketball in late May, so it might take a day to learn the ritual of not getting too excited or too down after a game.

The Celtics had to win last night, and they did. They were the better team, on both sides of the ball, from box to wire. Their defense again took control of the game early — the Pistons didn't score their first point until 8:05 of the first quarter — and the offense was decent.

The Pistons had to show up because that's what the NBA ordered, and they did.

The fact that the Celtics jumped out fast was a good sign, considering the amount of energy they expended on Sunday and really the last two weeks.

With the bar set probably a tad high and New England nervously twitching with each road loss, winning at home hasn't been enough.

The well-rested Pistons have been to six straight conference championships so there was nobody in the Pistons locker room boo-hooing after the loss, though one particular player was as miserable as ever.

"We alright," said forward Rasheed Wallace. "It ain't nothin'. One game. ... Now leave me alone."

There were several curse words mixed in, but you get the message. The Pistons know the deal.

Win one game in Boston and you are in good position to win the series.

"That's our goal ... to get one," said center Antonio McDyess. "They won one game. Big deal."

But the only fly in the ointment is Billups. He is The Man in Detroit. The ball is in his hands for all of the key possessions and he's made a habit of tooling young point guards like Rajon Rondo during crunch time.

Last night he was as mediocre as mediocre could be. He had nine points. He took only six shots. And he had only two assists. No wonder the Pistons were a day late and a dollar short for most of the night.

He and Richard Hamilton combined for 24 points. Worse, they combined for one field goal in the first half while the Boston Garden was rocking.

Billups played only 31 minutes and he didn't cover Rondo, which probably tells us he isn't anywhere near 100 percent.

"He hasn't really played a game in 10 days," said Pistons coach Flip Saunders.

His struggles played right into the hands of the Celtics defense, which was it's usual dominating self, holding the opposition under 80 points for the sixth time in 15 playoff games, all Boston victories.

"Yeah, they were aggressive," admitted Billups. "But it's pretty easy to be aggressive when 20,000 people are cheering you on."

The other four starters all were in double figures — Tayshaun Prince (16), McDyess (14), Wallace (11) and Hamilton (15).

"Do I have to do more?" said Billups, repeating the question. "No. We all have to do more. We have to play Pistons basketball."

What is Pistons basketball?

"Aggressive all over the court, grind it out on defense," said Billups. "We weren't aggressive on either side. We let them dictate the pace of the game. They won the game. They deserve it. "

They'd better hope Billups' hamstring is up to the challenge or they'll be looking at a 2-0 deficit after Thursday night.

E-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.