BOSTON EDGE THIS TIME LOOKS … DETROITISH!

BOSTON – Well, if that was rust scraping off the Pistons on Tuesday night, it was the Celtics who were scraping it. Don’t just blame the six-day layoff. Too many times in Game 1 of these Eastern Conference finals, the Pistons moved to the hoop and suddenly were without the ball – because a Boston player swatted it, poked it or just plain took it. Steals? It was like watching a police video on purse snatchings.

Here, in the opening frame of what could be a very long series, the Pistons got a taste of what it’s like to play against them when they are crunching down: It’s downright annoying. Like having mosquitoes all over your picnic.

In the third quarter alone – when teams in close games need to make a move – here was Chauncey Billups losing his dribble and then throwing it away, here was Rip Hamilton stripped, here was Tayshaun Prince missing a lay-up when Kevin Garnett contested him at the rim, here was Antonio McDyess throwing the ball away, here was Rip stripped again. The team with all the experience, Detroit, committed seven turnovers in that third period.

Seven turnovers?

“That basically blew the game open,” coach Flip Saunders said after the 88-79 defeat.

And there were more turnovers in the fourth. The Pistons may have stayed close on the scoreboard, but it never felt that close in the game. They were doing too many fundamental things wrong, and Boston was doing too many right. If this was the giveaway game – the one you surrender as you get your legs under you – it was Detroit who surrendered it, even though it was supposed to be Boston who was tired.

The Celtics snatched the claim the Pistons most pride themselves on.

They won with defense.

The Billups equation

Billups, I can understand. The man hasn’t played in a long time, and he’s coming off a hamstring injury. If anyone wasn’t going to look like himself in Game 1, it was going to be the Pistons’ point guard. He has spent more time on a massage table lately than on the court.

But the Pistons may be forced to make some major adjustments with Chauncey. He is a huge part of this offense, and when he couldn’t play against Orlando, Saunders dealt with it by using a steadily improving Rodney Stuckey.

But Tuesday, with Billups back in the lineup – but not really back, if you know what I mean – things look confused, out of sync. Stuckey played large chunks of time, he even shared the floor with Billups for a while, but then Chauncey was back for crunch time – and he was outplayed by a hustling Rajon Rondo.

An unhealthy Billups was a problem.

A semi-healthy Billups may be one, too.

“We never got in a flow,” Saunders said. But who controls flow more than a point guard?

Meanwhile, a bigger disappointment was Rasheed Wallace. He didn’t hit a jumper until the fourth quarter. He made just three shots all night. He was outplayed by Garnett, who shot 11-for-17 and finished with a game-high 26 points. This series will be a war between those two, but first blood was clearly drawn by the guy who was supposed to be exhausted.

“It’s what you gotta do,” Garnett told the ESPN cameras. “You gotta suck it up and play.”

The Pistons might want to write that down.

A race to the hoop

And while they’re at it, write this down, too. D-R-I-V-E. One of the reasons Stuckey is attractive out there is that he seems to be the only Pistons player with a nose for the rim. Chauncey isn’t doing it. Rip can’t finish it. ‘Sheed only does it if he has to. And those days are long gone for McDyess. Only Prince comes close. But check the box score, and you’ll see Boston had 44 points in the paint – half its total. The Pistons had 22 in the paint – half the Celtics’ total.

“That’s obviously unacceptable,” Prince said. “… We’ve got to move the ball, obviously. When we get stagnant, that’s in their favor.”

But OK. The Pistons know all this. And they have earned the right to be believed in until the very last second of their postseason. Fans view the Pistons game-by-game. The Pistons view themselves series-by-series.

This series – with the ghosts of the showdowns from the 1980s – may be one of contrasting histories, but it has present-tense familiarities. Tuesday night, the Celtics, defensively, looked a little too familiar. Come Thursday and Game 2, the Pistons need to look into the mirror and see themselves, not the Celtics’ version.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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