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NBA Front-Row Seat: Meeting of the Eastern Conference Powerhouses

Billups sealed the deal in Boston Chauncey Billups Photo Credit: Brandon Hansen/Icon SMI

Ice water runs through Chauncey Billups’ veins. The ex-journeyman point guard for the Detroit Pistons, coming to an NBA arena near you under the apt moniker “Mr. Big Shot,” displayed the steely veteran poise of a proven winner last night at the Boston Garden in the first meeting between the clear-cut best teams in the Association’s Eastern Conference. Less than two seconds after the Celtics’ Ray Allen nailed a clutch three-pointer from the top of the key to tie the game at 85, Billups took the inbounds pass near the free-throw line, calmly set his feet, and went for the jump shot… or so his defender, Tony Allen, thought. Pump fake, Allen leaves his feet, Billups is fouled, two made free throws, game over.

The Detroit Pistons edged the Boston Celtics 87-85 in a game that lived up to its advance billing. From the moment Kevin Garnett tipped the ball away from Rasheed Wallace on the jump ball, this one had the pace, the intensity, and the gravity of a late-round playoff game. Every possession felt like a big possession. The Pistons, who have been to five straight Eastern Conference Finals (advancing to two NBA Finals) and won a championship in 03/04, knew this was just one game in a long regular season, but you can bet they wanted this one to prove their opponent shouldn’t be anointed the favorites just yet. And on the other side, the Celtics, off to a convincing 20-2 start, yet to lose a home game, and fielding a triumvirate of perennial All Stars intent on milking this opportunity for all it’s worth. Nothing less than an NBA title (or two) over these next few seasons would ultimately qualify this gathering of talent a success story in their minds.

Despite Detriot’s gutsy road win, it’s evident that one game is not enough to draw solid conclusions about which team is better. The appropriate sample size, and it is every year, would be a seven-game series; if there’s any justice in this NBA world, that’s exactly what we fans will get come May 2008.

Read on for more notes from Round One between the front-running teams in the Eastern Conference:

– During his typically over-the-top pregame segment on ESPN, Bill Walton says that “Kevin Garnett is the best player in this league” and that it’s on him to get the Celtics past the Pistons not only tonight, but in the postseason should these two teams meet. For the most part, KG came through on his end, shooting 9-15 from the field in posting 26 points, 12 boards, and 2 steals. His defense on Rasheed Wallace was sound all night, and he got to the free-throw line 10 times. If he can average those kinds of numbers in a seven-game series against Detroit, you’d think Boston would be confident about its chances.

Mr. Rasheed “Roscoe” Wallace was begging for a technical foul pretty much all night, getting into the ref’s ear early on after being whistled late for a shooting foul on KG. On the next possession at the other end of the court, ‘Sheed could be heard screaming “Same call! Same call!” after failing to get a whistle after making a similar move on KG in the post. To his credit, Wallace did bear the brunt of at least two phantom foul calls that had him in foul trouble for most of the second half. There’s no question he’s handed more “reputation fouls” than most players in the league, but in big games like this he has to know when to reign his emotions in and not give away any freebie points. He didn’t get a tech, but could have from one of the more thin-skinned officials.

Rajon Rondo is quick

– Early on this contest was all about second-year, cat-quick PG Rajon Rondo, whose 10 points in the game’s first 5:30 minutes included a beautiful reverse-spin in the lane that pump-faked Rasheed Wallace right out of socks. Rondo’s ability to break down Billups and Rip Hamilton on the perimeter was not all that unexpected, but it was the ease in which he was doing it that was so remarkable. The help defense and rotations in the paint were just poor early on for the Pistons, though they picked it up drastically in the second half, limiting the easy baskets and holding Boston to just 33 points over the game’s final 24 minutes.

When he nailed a three-pointer from the baseline, it looked like this would be Rondo’s night, but Billups later turned the tables by asserting his size and poise on his much-smaller, less-experienced opponent and using it to his advantage. This was vintage Chauncey Billups. Sporting as cool a demeanor under pressure as any floor general in the league, there was Billups hitting clutch three-pointers, creating enough space on the perimeter to open up uncontested jump shots, sinking 10 of 11 free throws, and backing a helpless Rondo down into the post. On the night Billups finished 8-17 FG for 28 points, 8 assists, 1 steal, and 3 turnovers. After his hot start, Rondo would score just 4 points for the remainder of the game, tacking on 7 feeds and 3 swipes.

– A key matchup between these two squads is obviously at shooting guard, which pits All-Stars and fellow U-Conn alumni Ray Allen and Rip Hamilton in a battle of sharp-shooting veterans. Allen was nearly flawless on offense for most of the game, starting 5-5 from the field on his way to 3 three-pointers and 24 points. No make was bigger than the trey that tied it at 85; I saw him beat the Charlotte Bobcats at the buzzer with a similar shot earlier this season, and for my money he’s first in the pecking order for Boston as to who to look for when the game is on the line and they need a bucket. Hamilton wasn’t bad either, shooting 72% from the field for 21 points; fifteen of his points came in the first half, including 3 three-pointers (he averages less than 1/per on the season). It’s clear that these two love competing against one another.

Two noteworthy stats: one combined turnover between Boston and Detroit in the first quarter and five bench points all night for the Celtics (all from Eddie House).

– For most of the night we only saw the ghost of Tayshaun Prince, at least on the offensive end of the court. His shot was really off, with no points in the first half and his first (and only) bucket not coming until late in the third quarter. At one point, Billups drove to the hole and kicked it out to a wide-open Prince in the corner. Granted, it wasn’t a perfect pass, but Prince looked like he had kind of zoned out and didn’t see the ball until it was too late; Billups was saddled with the turnover, but Prince is the one who earned it. Going back to last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, it seems that sometimes when he’s being asked to lock-down a premier scorer on defense, his offensive severely suffers. Is it worth sacrificing a good portion of Prince’s 14 point/per average, though, in the name of dogging Paul Pierce and helping hold him to just 5 points with 4 minutes left in the third? The Pistons clearly would prefer the best of both worlds, but they must be pleased with Pierce’s 5-16 FG night.

– Give the early edge for bench play to the Pistons. As I said, the Celtics didn’t get much more from House, James Posey, Tony Allen, or Glen Davis than a few points, a handful of rebounds, and 9 fouls. Their collective +/- score on the night was a disappointing -15, and they failed to hold any kind of momentum the starting unit established. Aside from a frustrating performance from Jarvis Hayes in the first half, in which he missed five of six shots that were often taken from a bad spot on the floor, the Pistons got big boosts from their bench, especially the proud owner of a new bedpan, Lindsey Hunter. The 37-year-old helped swing the game in his team’s favor in the second half, hitting a baseline jumper, a three-pointer on a particularly ugly possession that had no ball movement, and stealing it twice in a few-minute span. By the time he headed to the bench after banging his knee, the Pistons had turned a near game-long deficit into a three-point lead midway through the fourth.

Jason Maxiell wasn’t much of a scoring threat on this night, but he pulled down some big offensive rebounds in the second half and finished +11 in 20 minutes of action. It was also surprising to see rookie first-round pick Arron Afflalo on the floor for key fourth-quarter minutes; the coaching staff seems to have faith in this kid, and though he hasn’t done much to stand out early in his career, last year’s Pac Ten Player of the Year plays within himself, never looks out of place, and is developing into a nice rotation player for Flip Saunders.

It was a helluva game, and we’ve already circled Saturday, January 5, on our calendar for the second of three regular-season meetings between these two teams. Hopefully there will be at least four more in May. For more thoughts and analysis on the game, the following are officially approved by ETB:

Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski on the Celtics bringing out the best in the Pistons

Video of Chauncey Billups and commentary from Matt Watson of Detroit Bad Boys

The best quotes from the game, via the Detroit Free Press

Live-blogging and commentary from Need4Sheed

Red’s Army says Boston is not there yet

Henry Abbott for TrueHoop says Tayshaun Prince is smart

Praise for the officiating from The Detroit News‘ Chris McCoskey

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