AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- The Pistons returned to the scene of their most recent triumph last night, taking the floor at The Palace of Auburn Hills for the first time since capturing the 2003-04 NBA championship.
The team that prides itself on playing the right way, started the exhibition season as one of a handful of favorites to win the 2004-05 title. It almost goes without saying Detroit will be among the elite in the still lightly regarded Eastern Conference, the kind of successful, balanced squad the Celtics aspire to be.
Long gone are the days of the Pistons as underdogs. By taking only five games to defeat the Lakers in the Finals, the Pistons showed what they can do. The challenge now is to repeat with the same brand of unselfish basketball that marked last season's championship run. Teams such as the Celtics must match the Pistons' intensity and energy to be competitive with the champions.
"I love [the Pistons] because they are so mentally tough," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "They are a group of guys, at least from the exterior, that seems like they are an unbreakable family, and that's always nice. They just play hard. They play together. They share the ball. They have inner toughness. And [coach] Larry [Brown] is not going to let them do it any other way.
"I enjoyed watching them last year through the playoffs [as a broadcaster]. I kept saying when I was on [the media] side that they weren't getting enough credit. Then, the way they played in the Finals was awesome. I thought it was great for sports." Last night, it was not great for the Celtics, who fell behind by 22 points in the first half of their exhibition meeting with the Pistons, then recovered in the third quarter only to lose, 105-103, in the waning seconds. Detroit proved too much for Boston's younger players, who finished the fourth quarter to gain valuable experience. The Pistons also showcased some of their younger players, though Darko Milicic sat out with a sore left quadriceps and Ben Wallace missed the game as he continued to recover from an emergency appendectomy in late August.But even though he did not compete against the Celtics, Wallace still talked about how the Pistons will handle the role of defending champions. He expects the Pistons to approach this season a lot like they did last season, though they entered this preseason more familiar with Brown and his coaching style. "It's no different," said Wallace. "Everybody came into last season open-minded, not sure what the outcome would be, but willing to go out and work hard and hope for the best. It's the same thing this year. What happened last season was great, but that was last season.
"[The hype that comes with a title] doesn't change our game. We have one purpose and that's to go out and play basketball, win games. I feel like we got everybody's best game last year, so it's not going to bother me. It's just going to make us better."
Better play from Detroit obviously means more trouble for the rest of the league. But even though it was only an exhibition game, the Celtics proved they could hang tough with the Pistons until the end. Boston staged a comeback with a lineup consisting largely of the starters posting 45 points in the third quarter. As a result, the Green took an 86-80 lead into the fourth, stretching their advantage to 12 points with a little more than five minutes remaining. The Pistons mounted a 14-3 run to close within 1 with 29.7 seconds remaining. Missed free throws by Marcus Banks and Tony Allen hurt the Celtics' chances of pulling out the victory. A 3-pointer by Carlos Delfino with six seconds remaining sealed the victory for Detroit.
While Boston learns to play as a team, Detroit will continue to serve as a prime example of what happens with season-long teamwork. The Pistons rely on strong team chemistry, even though some members of the championship team are gone, such as Mehmet Okur and Mike James, and parts have been added, such as Derrick Coleman, Delfino, Antonio McDyess, and Horace Jenkins. "The bottom line for us is we have to go with what we know," said Elden Campbell. "We lost some guys that we loved and enjoyed playing with, but that's the nature of the business and it happens. But the guys we got in, well, they'll fit right in. I think we just need to go through every night doing what we know works and sticking with it.
"It should be easier [to play as a team], but if it gets easier then you might have some guys who want to go off a little bit, which is natural. But I think we're ahead of the curve now from last year based on the fact that we're familiar with what we're doing and what's expected of us."
If the Pistons play the way they did last season, Rivers believes opponents must try to beat them at their own game. The Celtics succeeded in doing that during much of the second half.
"You've got to come right back at them," said Rivers. "You can't back off of what you want to do. They're so disciplined that they eventually take you out of your stuff offensively. I think the key to beating the Pistons is playing great defense on them. Everyone gets caught up in scoring against the Pistons, then they don't defend the Pistons." The Celtics showed the requisite mental toughness late in last night's game, but it was not enough to overcome inexperience.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.