A Celtics legend and a budding Celtics legend crossed paths in a hallway near the locker room late last night at TD Banknorth Garden. And while they were exchanging pleasantries, first-year Celtics forward Kevin Garnett received a compliment he surely will remember.
"I've always said you're my favorite player to watch," Bill Russell told him.
Russell's words came after Garnett scored a season-high 31 points during the Celtics' 90-78 victory over the Pistons in their Eastern Conference showdown before a sellout crowd. The Celtics - who clinched a playoff berth with the decision - now hold a four-game lead over the Pistons for the best record in the East. By winning the season series, 2-1, Boston (47-12) owns the tiebreaker over Detroit (44-17), if needed, for home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
"This is a big game for us, man," Garnett said. "The winner of this wins the tiebreaker. It was just a big game. It had everything written around it. It was a huge game, a huge game for us.
"We know that the Eastern Conference is going to be won by [one of] three teams, and this is one of them. Statement? You can say that. But it was an important game for us. I can't even put anything really on it. But it was a huge game for us and we knew that from Day One. This is not an easy matchup."
Garnett made 13 of 22 field goal attempts and 5 of 6 free throws in 41 minutes. He reached the 30-point mark for the first time this season and surpassed his previous high of 27, set against Atlanta Nov. 9. He sparked the Celtics to a 47-37 halftime lead by scoring 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting.
"I was in the flow early and I just never looked back," Garnett said.
Garnett played his ninth game since missing nine with an abdominal strain that seems to be a thing of the past. But with that injury in mind, coach Doc Rivers will be cautious with Garnett's minutes the rest of the way.
"He is back to normal and his conditioning is back, his timing is back," Rivers said. "The way we can tell usually is his jump shot, not his post game. When he's making little elbow jump shots, that means he has good rhythm. When he's not, that usually means he's going too fast. He doesn't have but one gear, and it's fast and faster. He was good."
The game was tied at 69 with 10:50 left in the fourth quarter after a lay-in by Detroit's Tayshaun Prince. The Celtics responded with a 16-8 run culminating in a Paul Pierce lay-in after a steal with 2:56 remaining for an 85-77 lead. Rajon Rondo, who had 16 points, sealed the decision on a 3-point play with 1:59 remaining that made it 88-77.
The Pistons never had the lead and were limited to 36.4 percent shooting from the field, 25 percent (4 of 16) from 3-point range.
"We needed this game to really see where we were, and I think we need to build off it, stay humble, and just keep working," said Celtics center Kendrick Perkins, who had a double-double of 10 points and a career-high 20 rebounds.
Detroit coach Flip Saunders said: "We didn't play how we needed to play offensively. You don't do that, you don't give yourself a good chance against a good team. Your margin of error against good teams is not much."
The Pistons have been a close second to Boston for most of the season. But with the season series and two straight wins in hand, the Celtics would seem to hold the momentum in a potential conference finals matchup.
Even so, the Celtics aren't getting overconfident. And while the Pistons were respectful, they have played in the last five East finals and don't seem overly concerned.
"This is just a great matchup," said Pierce, who had 15 points and three 3-pointers. "It does say that we can not only play them at home but on the road. Even when you look at the game when we lost the first one at home, we had our chances to win.
"But you don't want to take anything away from the Pistons. You don't want to get too overconfident against them. I remember in 2002 when we were, I think, like 3-1 or 4-0 against the New Jersey Nets and lost to them in the Eastern Conference finals. So it's great to beat them in the regular-season matchup and win the series, but this is a team we are probably going to have to see in the playoffs. They'll be a better team by then."
Detroit guard Chauncey Billups, who had 23 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds, said: "They're a good team. Nobody can deny that, nobody can fight that. It was two good teams out there fighting, and they took care of business at home today."
Marc J. Spears can be reached at email@example.com