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Bob Ryan

Third degree will yield answers

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / May 20, 2008

The Pistons are here. Isn't this what everyone wanted?

Think back to December, when people around here were saying, "Whoa, these guys really are pretty good." Were people honestly thinking championship? Some giddy people, sure. But everyone else was saying, "All I want is a crack at the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals." And here we are.

But the Celtics did not get here in a conventional manner, at least not in the manner of a team that won 66 regular-season games and had a league-best 31-10 record away from home. They huffed and puffed their way here in disturbing fashion, zealously protecting their almighty home-court advantage while losing every one of their road games in the first two rounds, many of them truly embarrassing performances.

Conventional wisdom tells us that this is no way to win a championship, and that statement is to be taken literally. No team ever has won an NBA championship by winning every home game and losing every road game. No team ever has won the championship after being extended to the limit in both its first and second round.

The 1988 Lakers are the only team to win three seven-game series in one playoff season, but they warmed up by sweeping San Antonio in the best-of-five first round and later won road games against Utah and Detroit. Losing a home game is no disgrace. You just turn around and do unto them as they have done unto you. That's the way it's always been done, and them's the facts.

There is, of course, a first time for everything, and no town knows this better than Boston. There could not possibly have been a worse doom-and-gloom scenario than the one in this town following the 19-8 Yankee destruction of the Red Sox in Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS. Baseball had been conducting postseason competition in various forms since the 1880s, and no team ever had come back from a 3-0 series deficit. That number since has been expanded to one.

So, yes, in theory the Celtics could win the 2008 NBA championship by pulling a Tim Wakefield, by going 16-12. They could win by winning every Game 1, 2, 5, and 7 and losing every Game 3, 4, and 6. Is anyone comfortable with that thought?

The Celtics enter this series disturbingly vulnerable because the opponent is legendarily tough-minded - most of the time, anyway. Detroit already has won in Philadelphia and Orlando, and there isn't a scintilla of doubt in the Pistons' minds that they will go to Auburn Hills for Saturday's Game 3 with at least a split in the first two games.

On the other hand . . .

The Pistons don't always walk the walk. Since winning the championship in 2004, they lost to San Antonio in the 2005 Finals (seven games), lost to Miami in the 2006 Eastern Conference finals (six games), and, most surprisingly, lost to Cleveland in last year's Eastern Conference finals (six games).

There may not have been anything horrifying about the losses to San Antonio or Miami, but let it be said here and now that the loss to the LeBrons was a major shock. Not many people believe the better team won that series. The Pistons appeared to lack that certain je ne sais quoi, so much so that people were very curious to see how they would respond in the 2007-08 season. After all, five consecutive appearances in the conference finals might be considered a reasonable maxing out for any organization.

Pish and posh. The Pistons won their 59. They knocked off the 76ers and the Magic. They're baaaaack.

Make it six straight.

When we talk modern "Pistons," what we're really talking about is a core of four veterans who are now in their fifth season (four full) together. This exemplary Gang of Four consists of 31-year-old point guard Chauncey Billups, 30-year-old shooting guard Richard "Rip" Hamilton, 28-year-old forward Tayshaun Prince, and, finally, 33-year-old Rasheed Wallace, the enigmatic forward/center who some say holds the entire franchise prisoner to his emotions.

There is no other player, no other personality, like Rasheed Wallace in the National Basketball Association. His somewhat modest core numbers - 13 points and 7 rebounds a game - belie his immense importance to this team. At 6 feet 11 inches, he is a consummate inside-outside threat. When the mood strikes, he is a McHale-like post-up man. He is a major 3-point threat. He can rebound. He can block shots. He can pass. He can think. He can inspire. And he can rage. Boy, can he rage.

A motivated Rasheed Wallace is a great basketball force of nature. But he all too often seems preoccupied. With the referees. With himself. With something. He is a highly skilled big man who many feel should have more than one championship ring, and only he knows why.

The other key players are 33-year-old Antonio McDyess, a versatile big man; 25-year-old Jason Maxiell, a high-energy frontcourt sub; and 22-year-old guard Rodney Stuckey, a 6-5 rookie the Pistons believe has star potential.

The X-factor may very well be the coach, Flip Saunders. Few in Detroit have forgotten that it was Larry Brown who pulled it all together four years ago, and it was Flip who presided over last year's rather shocking demise at the hands of the LeBrons. Flip really needs to at least get to the Finals.

The Celtics enter this series in a curious state. Ray Allen is in an immense offensive funk. The bench is trying to adjust to the idea that, because of its peculiar configuration, Doc Rivers has no actual "rotation," aside from the idea that James Posey is his Main Man. Otherwise, wow.

Sam Cassell went from 18 and 25 minutes in Games 1 and 2 of the Cleveland series to a pair of DNPs in Games 6 and 7. Leon Powe went from 41 minutes in the first two games (and a Best Supporting nomination in Game 2) to 32 minutes in the last five games. Eddie House went from a DNP beginning to 33 desperately needed minutes in Games 6 and 7. Big Baby Davis had an interesting roller-coaster-minutes ride: 4-3-3-4-11-17-DNP. And Ol' Man River Brown (P.J. to his friends) went from three minutes in Game 1 to 20 valuable minutes and take-a-bow status in Game 7. (You were hoping to draw P.J. in the who's-gonna-make-the-biggest-shot-in-Game 7 pool, I'm sure.)

Eleven of Doc's 12 people had a hand in at least one victory over the Cavs. The only one left out was Tony Allen, and he could conceivably be asked to guard someone (Chauncey? Hamilton?) in key moments of this series.

The classically constructed NBA bench has a three-man core, with at least one of them a two-position guy. Mssrs. 8 and 9 are specialists of some sort. Mssrs. 10 and 11 clap loudly. The Celtics do not have that kind of a bench. Doc has 12 legitimate NBA players, some of whom are more useful against certain people than others. That's just the way things are with the Boston Celtics.

It would be a reach to say the 66-16 Celtics are now playing the 59-23 Pistons with house money, but it is no reach at all to say that, given the developments of the first two playoff rounds, the expectations for the Celtics have been tamped down significantly. Not winning a playoff road game in Rounds 1 and 2 will do that.

Celtics fans are now well aware that their team has some charming vulnerability. That's OK. It's always easier on the ticker rooting for an underdog.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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