FATED DATE: MITCH ALBOM

It might be strange, when picking your poison, to have a preference. But if you’re a Pistons fan, you might regret Sunday’s departure of LeBron James and the Cavs. They may have been the defending Eastern Conference champs, but they sure looked more beatable than Boston.

Yes, I’ve heard the reasons the Celtics might be a better foe for Detroit. They’ve yet to win a playoff game on the road. They needed seven games to finish each of their two series. They’re still gaining playoff experience – while Cleveland has been there.

But, for one thing, Cleveland really hasn’t. Not that bunch anyhow. Sure, LeBron steered his team past the Pistons last spring, but the 2007 group had starters such as Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden and reserves such as Donyell Marshall.

These Cavaliers start Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West, plus a Ben Wallace who has grown so one-dimensional, you wonder why the Pistons ever considered signing him back. Honestly, if Big Ben isn’t rebounding (he had four all game Sunday) and if you don’t dare throw him the ball, how exactly is he an asset?

Anyhow, none of these guys was there last year when the Cavs got it done, so why would their “experience” have been scary this time around?

Besides, the guy who actually did a lot of knife-throwing at Detroit last year, Daniel Gibson, is out with a separated shoulder.

Put all that together, and you had a team that was LeBron and a collection of used car parts – unreliable when you needed them most. No wonder James needed 45 points and nine more shots than the rest of the starters combined Sunday just to give his team a chance.

I would have liked the Pistons in that matchup. The Cavs were less threatening than last year. They had the burden of expectations. And the Pistons would have been hungry to avenge the 2007 defeat – and presumably, would have a few new ideas on how to keep LeBron from scoring 25 straight.

Where are Bird and McHale?

But it’s not going to happen. Cleveland fought, but Boston finished, behind 41 points from Paul Pierce. And so we are back to the future, Detroit versus Boston to get to the NBA Finals. I’m sure there are folks in Beantown who think Bill Laimbeer still plays for Detroit, just as there as some in our town who expect Larry Bird to steal the ball at least once this series.

But the truth is, these Pistons and Celtics don’t have much history. They’ve played a few times in the regular season, but that won’t mean much. What will matter is which team figures out the other faster.

There are many similarities. Boston likes defense. Detroit likes defense. Boston has an amazing back-to-the-basket player who rebounds and defends (Kevin Garnett), and Detroit has one, too (Rasheed Wallace). Boston can shoot from the outside but sometimes falls victim to doing it too much, just like the Pistons. And, despite early scouting reports, Boston does have a decent bench, as do the Pistons.

A rocky road ahead

So beating the Celtics will be very tough. For one thing, while they may lose on the road, they don’t lose at home. And if the series goes seven games, they’ll have the deciding game at the new Garden.

Besides, the Celtics can come at you from a lot of angles: Pierce won’t kill you all series, but he’ll kill you in a few games. Ray Allen may look dead tired, but the man can shoot; I don’t think he’s forgotten how. And point guard Rajon Rondo is spry and young and fast, three things that could really annoy 31-year-old Chauncey Billups with his recently injured hamstring.

I’ll tell you this. The Pistons will need to keep attacking and attacking the basket, moving the ball around, because the Celtics can clog things up enough to make you say, “Oh, heck, let me shoot from out here.” Which is just what they want. They kept James, in his most desperate game, from driving the lane as much as he needed. And the Pistons have no creator even close to him.

It will take tenacious defense, and no nights off (notice I didn’t say the word “faucet” or “switch,” but you get my drift). But if the Pistons play with desperation and fury, they will prevail, it says here.

It also says here I’d have preferred Cleveland.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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