Flip Saunders said it before the game. He said it after the game. The play of these teams on this December night doesn't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. OK, he didn't quite put it like Rick did on the tarmac in "Casablanca," but the Pistons coach wanted to drive home the point that, regardless of the outcome of last night's epic, life, indeed, would go on. For both teams.
He's right, of course. It was, as the cliché goes, one of 82. And today, the Celtics' attention will turn to tomorrow night's opponents, the Bulls, while the Pistons will prepare to face the Grizzlies.
But for one night, anyway, the visitors managed to slow down the Celtics' blitzkrieg, end the team's unbeaten streak at home, and serve a reminder to one and all that they are very much in the conversation when the topic turns to Beasts of the East. So much of the attention had been (deservedly) focused on the incredible start of the Celtics that the Pistons had been reduced to almost an afterthought, despite having the second-best record in the conference and second-best defense in the league.
In other words, still on everyone's mind, but not on the tip of anyone's tongue. That's fine with them. They don't mind sharing the spotlight - or ceding it - as long as it's in the winter.
"I love it," Chauncey Billups said, when reminded that few have been talking up the Pistons so far, mostly because everyone has been talking up the Celtics. "I hope they win every game again until we play them. I really do. I love us flying under the radar. I think that's when we're at our best. We can hunt people - and everyone else gets the credit. I hope it continues to happen. We're not going anywhere. We're going to be around for a while."
They certainly proved that last night, didn't they? They turned up the defense in the fourth quarter, with Lindsey Hunter coming up with two big steals and then knocking down a 3-pointer that gave Detroit a lead it held until the final 19 seconds. The Pistons did it by holding the Celtics to 11-of-32 shooting in the second half, while outscoring them, 42-33. They did it with Billups overpowering Rajon Rondo down the stretch after the Celtics point guard had submitted an electric first half.
And they won the game when Billups up-faked Tony Allen to the rafters to draw a shooting foul with the game tied at 85 and a tenth of a second remaining. Two makes and that was that. If the ending looked familiar, it was the same play the Pistons ran against the Celtics two years ago, only that time it was Rip Hamilton who made the winner.
"I think what you saw out there were two teams pretty evenly matched," Saunders said. "It was a fun game to play and watch. It was like playoff intensity and it was, by far, the most aggressive our guys have played."
Billups is right. These guys aren't going anywhere. They have been together for so long and have been good for so long that it's almost an article of faith that, once again, they will be playing late into May. As Kevin Garnett accurately stated postgame, "They've been there. They know how to keep their poise. They know each other. If we are going to be of any substance, we need to go through Detroit."
Rasheed Wallace had said something similar recently. (He declined to elaborate after the game.) But while the Pistons like what they have, both in talent and experience, they were understandably intrigued by what had been going on in Boston. Garnett and Billups are close friends and converse frequently. Let's just say that neither the Pistons nor the Celtics went into last night's game with the same mind-set as if they were playing the Bobcats in February.
"We looked forward to it," Billups said. "They looked forward to it. You're looking at two of the best teams in the league. Outside of that, it's a regular game - with two really good teams. It was everything we thought it would be. It's a gauge game, to kind of see where you're at."
Right now, the teams appear to be distancing themselves from the rest of what passes for competition in the Eastern Conference. The two have 10 losses combined, or one more than the team with the third-best record, Orlando, has by itself. (The Magic, however, are still hanging around and got a big win last night in Houston.)
The real tragedy is that these teams will only play twice more this season, once in Auburn Hills, Mich. (Jan. 5), and again in Boston (March 5). And let's not forget, there's still almost 75 percent of the season remaining - and then comes the important part, the playoffs, which cover another two months. That's when these teams would really like to meet again - with the winner going to the NBA Finals. And if they play out the season anything close to the way they played last night, such a meeting would not only be richly rewarding, it would also seem to be almost inevitable.
Peter May can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.