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One regular-season loss won't defeat them

Rip Hamilton couldn't believe he got a technical foul in the second half, and the Pistons don't believe they're finished. Rip Hamilton couldn't believe he got a technical foul in the second half, and the Pistons don't believe they're finished. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Peter May
Globe Staff / March 6, 2008

Say goodbye to them for a while. You won't see the Detroit Pistons again for two-plus months at the earliest, and if that meeting does transpire, it promises to be a doozy of an Eastern Conference finals.

But until that possible (putative?) meeting in May, the Pistons will continue to go about their business, playing what, for now, is the second-best basketball in the conference and, according to records, the second-best basketball in the NBA. They have lost the season series to the Celtics after last night's 90-78 setback. They will turn their attention to the Knicks, whom they play tomorrow night, and take last night's loss for what it's worth - one game, which, they feel, has no bearing on what may or may not transpire when things are really on the line.

Asked if his team's confidence might in any way be shaken, especially after guys such as Kendrick Perkins (20 rebounds) and Rajon Rondo (16 points) played a big role in the outcome, team mouthpiece Chauncey Billups had to fight back a laugh. "No way, man," he said. "They're a good team. Nobody can deny that. There were two good teams fighting out there. They took care of business at home.

"But you know what we've been through. This isn't even the playoffs," Billups continued. "We've been down, 3-2, in a playoff series and won [against the Nets in 2004 and the Heat in 2005]. We've been down, 3-1, in a playoff series and won [against Doc Rivers's Orlando Magic in 2003]. So there's no way our confidence is shaken by one game in the regular season."

The inherent unfairness of the NBA schedule hit this budding rivalry hard this season. The Pistons were one of four Eastern Conference teams (out of a possible 10) the Celtics see only three times. They play Milwaukee four times. They play Charlotte four times. They play Detroit thrice. As Dustin Hoffman's "Hook" would say, "Bad form!"

And, unlike the first two times when both teams had equal rest, the Celtics had the decided edge last night in that (a) they had last played Sunday, were in the middle of a five-game homestand, and had not gone anywhere in nine days, and (b) the Pistons had played the night before, didn't arrive at their hotel until 4 a.m., and are in a stretch where they have one home game in two weeks. Said coach Flip Saunders, "It seems like we've been on the road for 11 days because we spent more time in LA [when they played the Clippers] than we did when we got back home [when they played Seattle]."

But no one from Detroit was using the schedule as an excuse (bad form as well), and all teams have to deal with those kinds of quirks during a season. Everyone is playing on the same field, or court, when the playoffs start. The Pistons would like nothing better than to be back here for a much-anticipated Eastern Conference finals matchup and they are not the least bit worried about having to start it in the building they left last night.

"This team loves to play on the road," Saunders said. "We wouldn't view having home-court advantage as any kind of life-and-death situation."

After last night's result, it's going to be hard for the Pistons to overtake the Celtics, even with Boston's upcoming three-game trip through Texas, a trek that ends with a game in New Orleans. (Take a look at the Celtics' April schedule and try to find more than one loss there.) And, let's face it, whoever gets Cleveland in the second round (assuming form holds true in the first round) is in for a battle. Right now, that team would be the Celtics.

And if it does come to what we hope it comes to - and the players would take it right now ("next week," Billups said) - be advised that, as that stock caveat goes, "Past success is no indication of future earnings." (Or something like that.) In other words, regular-season results mean little. Paul Pierce even referenced the 2001-02 season, when the Celtics took three of four from the Nets and then lost to them in six games in the conference finals.

"This is a team we are probably going to see in the playoffs and they'll be a better team by then," Pierce said.

Over the next few weeks, the Celtics will try to be a better team as they integrate Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown into the mix, while the Pistons will do the same with Theo Ratliff. But if and when these teams do meet, it's gonna come down, as it usually does, to the familiar faces we've seen in the last five conference finals: Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and Rasheed Wallace (he's only been to the last four). That's who they are. They're comfortable in their own skin. And one March loss in Boston isn't changing anything.

Peter May can be reached at pmay@globe.com.

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