Celtics, Pistons Get It On Again
WALTHAM, Mass. - Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce knew exactly what everyone wanted to talk about yesterday, as he was surrounded by an unusually large number of notepads, tape recorders and television cameras. Pierce didn't want to waste any time, so he got right to it.
"I just want to say, right now," Pierce said, smiling and raising his hands to the ceiling, "I'm happy that Randy Moss signed for three more years with the Patriots."
Silence. Eyes rolled. Pierce laughed, uncomfortably, to himself. That a comment about the Patriots elicited no response was proof of two things: One, the 18-1, championship runner-up Patriots are old news in these parts right now. And two, all everyone here is concerned with is tonight's game between the Celtics and Detroit Pistons, the teams with the two best records in the NBA.
It's been a long time since the Celtics - Pierce in particular - have played a meaningful game this late in the season. He admitted that he has had different priorities the past two seasons, as the Celtics sank further into lottery misery. "I was making plans to go to Europe at this time last year," Pierce said with a laugh. "I won't be making those plans now as I'm looking forward to the postseason. It feels good, to get a chance to go back to the playoffs. I haven't been there in awhile."
Obviously, the additions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen had a lot to do with that.
Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said tonight's game should have a playoff feel to it, since these teams are battling for the all-important homecourt advantage in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and possibly, the NBA Finals - if one of the teams is fortunate enough to get there. For all of the attention that has been given to the West - with the big name player movement (Shaq, Pau, Kidd) and jostling for playoff position - the Celtics and the Pistons, both representing the collectively pitiful East, are looking down at the rest of the league.
The Pistons (44-16) are used to being in this position, having advanced to the conference championship in each of the previous five seasons, reaching the NBA Finals twice and winning the NBA title in 2004. Detroit has won 15 out of its past 18 games to quietly creep within 3 games of the Celtics, who jumped out to one of the best starts in NBA history, winning 29 of their first 32 games. But as Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace said, "It ain't how you start. It's how you finish."
The tendancy is to fawn over what's new, to forget about the constants, and the Pistons are okay with that. In fact, they prefer it. Let the Celtics be the Microsoft Zune. The Cavaliers can be the iPhone. The Pistons will settle for being a basic, no-frills MP3 player. "We like how everybody says, 'Boston is [going to be] Eastern Conference champs.' Let all that media go to them," Wallace said. "I like it like that. It makes our locker room smaller."
Detroit has been there, done that. They breezed to the best record in the East in each of the past two seasons, but didn't do much with homecourt advantage, losing to Miami and Cleveland in the conference finals. So, while the Pistons would like get a win tonight - and possibly have a mental edge going into the postseason - in the third and final regular season meeting this season, they aren't very concerned about catching Boston. "Our mission is not to get the No. 1 seed," guard Richard Hamilton said. "If it happens, it happens. Our mission is to get back to the Finals."
And, actually, the No. 2 seed in the East might be the desired path for Detroit, since it would likely mean avoiding LeBron James and the defending conference champs, Cleveland, in the second round. The race is by no means locked up. Thirteen of Boston's final 24 games are on the road, including a trip through San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and New Orleans later this month. The Pistons play 13 of their final 22 games at The Palace of Auburn Hills - where Detroit is 23-5 - and their only road game against a Western Conference opponent is at Minnesota.
The first two games this season have been extremely intense, with both teams winning on the road. The Pistons stole the first meeting, 87-85, as point guard Chauncey Billups nailed the decisive free throws after duping Tony Allen into fouling him on the final possession. In the last meeting, the Celtics beat the Pistons, 92-85, and Celtics players celebrated and lifted the front of their jerseys to the fans in Auburn Hills, Mich.
"What's at stake?" Ray Allen pondered. "A loss or a win. I don't look at it any deeper than that. It's not judgement day yet. It's not a series where you win or go home."
But it's as close at it can get in the regular season. In the East.
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