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ON BASKETBALL

Drawing a crowd is nothing new

The capacity crowd was on its feet. The noise machines were in overdrive. There was a scene from "Predator" on the Jumbotron and Thunder Stix were slapping in quasi-unison throughout.

"Seen it all before," shrugged Chauncey Billups. "Seen a lot of it this year."

That's how it is for the Detroit Pistons, who quieted the FleetCenter last night long enough to take a 110-104 victory, their fifth straight on the road. They are the defending champions. They are the league's "It" team and it comes as no coincidence that the third sellout of the season at the FleetCenter came on their first visit. (The others were the season opener and the first, and only, visit of LeBron James.)

They must be getting tired of listening to "Rock and Roll, Part 2" and "Eye of the Tiger," of seeing the video clips from "Braveheart" and "Rudy" and even "Animal House." But that is the price the champion pays, and the Pistons are learning as they pay.

"Every night it's like this," Billups said after dropping 22 points on the Celtics. "It's fun. It's a challenge. But I think it's going to help us down the road because it makes you play your best basketball every night."

They thought they knew what was in store going into the season. It is different when you go on the road as the reigning NBA champions. The cliche is true: Everybody is gunning for you. "Teams come at you with so much more energy," Billups said, "no matter who they played the night before or who they're playing the night after. It's because the Pistons are in town."

Reserve guard Lindsey Hunter, a Celtic for 24 hours last season, is the only player on the team who had a championship ring (2001-02 Lakers) prior to last June's stunning upset of the Lakers. He couldn't tell his teammates what to expect because he was traded to Toronto the following season. Head coach Larry Brown talked to the team about what to expect but, as Billups pointed out, "he didn't know, either." They should have asked trainer Mike Abdenour. He knows.

"It's a huge, huge challenge and sometimes it can be overwhelming," Billups said. "But until you go through it, you don't know."

The Pistons are starting to find out. "It's our learning process this season," Hunter offered. They were coming off a hugely disappointing drubbing at home the night before to Memphis, a loss that had their fans booing them.

"We were disappointed with the way we played," Brown said. "Our effort tonight was much better."

And, just in case anyone needed to be reminded, they are the champs. The Celtics gave them a game; when was the last time a team shot 59 percent from the field and lost? But there were two telling stretches in which the Pistons showed why they're still deserving of all this attention.

After taking a 10-point lead at the half by converting on their last 11 possessions of the second quarter, the Pistons saw their lead shaved to a point (70-69) with 4:07 remaining in the third on a Paul Pierce turnaround. The Pistons responded with a 12-4 run to close the quarter, which featured a pair of 3-pointers. That gave Detroit an 82-73 lead entering the fourth.

The Pistons pushed the lead to 12 (87-75 with 10:21 left on another Billups trey) and then saw the Celtics fight back again, cutting the deficit to 97-96 with 3:13 to play. Brown called a timeout and, given the noise, it's amazing the players heard a word he said. But they knew what to do.

Six seconds out of the break, Rasheed Wallace knocked down a baseline jumper. Ben Wallace then rejected Al Jefferson, and that led to another Billups hoop. Ricky Davis squirted loose for a layup to make it a 3-point game, but Richard Hamilton, coming off one of the more memorable shooting nights ever (0-10 FG, 14-14 FT), knocked down a trey and then added a short jumper after a Pierce turnover. The lead was now 8, there were 68 seconds left, and the FleetCenter emptied in a hurry.

That's what champions do. They take a lead on the road, weather the predictable rally, and leave everyone disappointed. How many times did the Bird Celtics do that? It's what separates the men from the boys.

"We know what it takes to get there," Billups said. "We just have to keep our focus."

Their record isn't all that impressive (18-14) and they've had some truly mind-boggling games, like a 16-point home loss to Atlanta, a 7-point home loss to Chicago, a loss at Charlotte, and, of course, Thursday's 22-point loss at home to the Grizzlies. They needed two overtimes to beat the Bobcats at home. They needed one OT to beat Toronto at home. That sounds more like the 15-18 Celtics.

"Games like [Thursday night], we've already had enough of those for one season," Billups said.

He'd better be right. But games like last night's are going to be the norm virtually every time they take the floor. It can be a painful and even humiliating experience but, if you're the Pistons, you wouldn't want it any other way.

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