EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 23, 2008

Pressure's on now: After losing home-court advantage, Celts become road worrier

Bill Burt

BOSTON — Those make-believe ruby red slippers the Boston Celtics have been prancing around in the past three weeks — "There's no place like home." — have been exposed.

But instead of the Wicked Witch of the West of "The Wizard of Oz" fame doing the exposing, it was guys named Rodney Stuckey, Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace.

So this is playoff basketball.

You go into a hostile environment, like the Detroit Pistons did, and win 103-97. Wow, what a novel concept.

Everything has changed for the Celtics in their first playoff run together. They have to win outside of Boston.

"I've said it many times, we're going to have to win the road," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "We've gotten away with it thus far. That's been taken away. And if we want what we want, we have to win on the road. And that's just the way it is."

While Rivers was throwing the lion's share of the blame on the Celtics defense — they were late in many of their switches and weren't in the correct position for loose balls and offensive rebounds late in the game, according to Rivers — I wonder if the crediting the Pistons is a more accurate assessment.

Yes, the Celtics staple, their defense, couldn't make a stop when it mattered. In fact, you could argue that the Celtics offense, which at times has looked anemic and confused, played its best game.

"We shot 48 percent (and) we lost the game," said Celts forward Kevin Garnett, who had 24 points and 13 rebounds.

The seed for last night's result may have been planted after Tuesday night's tilt, won handily by the Celtics, 88-79. The Pistons calmly left the TD Banknorth Garden pooh-pooing the opener and the Celtics home playoff supremacy (9-0 before last night).

Yes, the Celtics got a lesson in poise from the Pistons last night.

The Pistons had a few things they absolutely had to do better or they were going home down 2-0. They had to move more. They had to get the most underrated guard tandem in the league, Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton, firing on all cylinders. And they had to do something Atlanta and Cleveland couldn't do, shut 18,000 cocky Celtics fans up.

Of course, the Pistons got a little more than they bargained for. Rookie Rodney Stuckey, drafted 15th overall out of Eastern Washington University (I had never heard of the school either), basically halted the Celtics vaunted comeback beginning late in the third quarter.

With the score 71-68 after a Paul Pierce 3-pointer and the Garden in frenzy-mode, Stuckey shut the place up by taking the ball to within eight feet of the basket and calmly hit a jump shot.

By the time Stuckey had handed over the game to the Pistons superstars, he had scored 10 of the Pistons 15 points over a span of 5:02, and Detroit had an 86-75 lead.

"I'm never scared," said Stuckey. "I've got Chauncey (Billups), Rip (Hamilton), Sheed (Wallace), Tay (Prince) and all these guys behind me ... They keep me confident every day. Just being around them, always being poised and confident, gives me extra energy."

As for the Celtics, they have not been in this position since the playoffs started a month ago on April 20. They now absolutely, positively have to win a game outside of Boston.

"It's true, we always could bank on winning at home," said guard Ray Allen, who had his best game of the playoffs with 25 points in 30 minutes. "We can't do that any more. No question we have to win in Detroit. That might make this a little different."

The Pistons, now in their sixth Eastern Conference championship in six years, aren't claiming anything after last night's win, other than a game.

"At this point of the season when you get a big win, it is one game at a time," said Billups. "So we put all our effort and energy into Saturday night. And after that we'll talk."

Rivers was reminded several times afterward about the Pistons' poise last night. It was nothing he hadn't seen or expected before.

"Their poise? We're never going to beat that. That's who they are," said Rivers. "We have to beat them."

Games 3 and 4 now head about 1,000 miles away to The Palace in Auburn Hills.

But the country knows better. The ball is really in the Celtics court.

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