THAT’S NOT THE WAY TO START OFF A SERIES

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 swiped it, poked it, swatted 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,” Flip Saunders said.

Yep. And there were more turnovers in the fourth. The Pistons may have stayed close on the scoreboard, but it never really felt that way 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 and you get to know your opponent – it was Detroit who surrendered it, even though it was supposed to be Boston who was tired.

Instead, for most of the night, Billups was not a factor. Rasheed Wallace was not a factor. Hamilton didn’t have a basket in the first half.

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

They won with defense. The trouble with Chauncey

Billups, I can understand. The man hasn’t played in a long time, and he’s coming off an 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 with massage therapists than basketballs.

But the Pistons may be forced to make some big 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.

Who controls flow more than a point guard?

Meanwhile, a bigger disappointment was Wallace. He didn’t hit a jumper until the fourth quarter. He made just two all night. He was outplayed by Garnett, who shot 11-for-17 and finished with a game-high 26 points.

So much for him being tired from Game 7 against Cleveland.

“We got to go, man,” Garnett said to ESPN after the game. “It’s what you gotta do, you gotta suck it up and play.”

The Pistons might want to write that down. Mirror, mirror on the wall

But OK. It’s a long series. And there were many subplots at play here. Saunders and Garnett, so tightly linked to playoff disappointment when they were in Minnesota, now locked in a battle in which only one can reach his first NBA Finals. Hamilton and Ray Allen, alumni of the same university, dueling against each other at the same position. Billups, coming off his hamstring injury, being tested by the “chase-me-all-day” kid, Rondo.

And, of course, the franchises themselves, weaving a reunion tapestry after all these years. Remember, it was Detroit that sent the Celts into their 20-year tailspin. Before that, they simply expected a championship every year around here.

But now they are back at it, mirror images of one another. Except 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.

www.freep.com/mitch.

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