Pistons-Celtics: Historic Rivalry Reborn in Eastern Conference Finals

Mick MillerAnalyst IMay 19, 2008

NBA, I heard you missed it. It's back.

The thrill of the Boston-Detroit rivalry is back full bore with the Eastern Conference on the line and a shot at the NBA Championship. It was the Celtics who the Pistons had to fight through on their way to back-to-back titles in the late eighties-early nineties and literally taught them what it took to ascend to the throne of the league.

While we ready for game 1 of the series Tuesday night, we have some history to cover for those readers who may be unaware of where we've been and where we're going. And while my counterparts over at Celtics 17 at MVN and here at Bleacher Report may not see things the way I do (I'm hoping this series will be a bit more cordial between writers than the Detroit-Orlando series was), I'm hoping to set the scene before we get on with what the next act will bring.

As if it was yesterday…

After drafting Isiah Thomas in 1981, we thought finally, we have a name player again. Someone who understands winning and someone we as fans can identify with the concept. The then-record 21 game losing streak during the 1979-1980 season would be forgotten forever. Long gone were George Yardley, Dave DeBusschere, Jimmy Walker, Dave Bing and Bob Lanier and after years of futility, maybe the Pistons on are their way to being a solid NBA club once again.

Although I was skeptical that it could be done with the likes of Bill Laimbeer, Kelly Tripucka and some unknown named Vinnie Johnson, it all started to come together during the 1980’s. “Trader” Jack McCloskey had a plan and owner Bill Davidson was allowing him to implement it. I know I couldn’t wait.

Like all teams, Detroit had to learn how to win. The team in the way? The legendary Boston Celtics. In 1985, after a first round sweep of the Nets, Detroit found themselves in elite playoff company—the championship would go through the Boston Garden. After losing the first two games there, Detroit put together their own back-to-back wins and built some confidence that they not only belonged, but that they could win.

Boston would close them out in the next two games, but the hard fought series laid the ground work for a new and fierce rivalry, one that would decide who would represent Eastern Conference supremacy. After suffering for so long as fans, we were getting close. My friends and I would alternate houses for games and we never missed a Piston minute again.

Along came Rick Mahorn in a trade and Joe Dumars in the 1985 NBA Draft (18th selection overall) and although they were dumped in the first round by the Atlanta Hawks, the team was due for a change in philosophy.

In 1986, the team would draft John “Spider” Salley (11th overall) and Dennis Rodman (27th) and trade for Adrian Dantley and the “Bad Boys” were born, along with a tenacious “take no prisoner” physical style. Now more than ever, the team was ready for Larry Bird and the Celtics. But they had to get there first.

After blowing through the Washington Bullets and returning the favor to the Atlanta Hawks, Boston was waiting in the Eastern Conference Finals and this rivalry would take a monumental step. This had to be the year, because being close wasn’t enough anymore and Detroit fans were loving cheering for the team that NO ONE wanted to play.

Again, like their prior playoff meeting, Boston came out and showed why THEY are the model for success in the East. Taking the first two games, the Pistons were forced to regroup and dance with the plan that got them there. After two routs of the mighty Celtics at home (122-104, 145-119), the Pistons, and their fans (I was BESIDE myself) were prime for a rousing win at the Garden.

After a crucial Celtic turnover, Thomas missed a Chuck Daly timeout call and had his inbounds pass stolen by the clutch Bird and fed Dennis Johnson for the game-winning lay-up. The Pistons win in game 6 made it all the worse, even though “The Chief” Robert Parrish would serve the first playoff game suspension for punching Bill Laimbeer.

That win should have been a trip to the finals instead of a trip back to Beantown and a game 7 loss. One thing for sure, we hated the Celtics. We hated Bird, McHale, Parrish, Johnson, the Garden, the color green, the Red Sox … you get the idea. But the Pistons were now a power, win or lose.

The following year, the team defeated Boston (holding Bird to 10 points per game and 35% field goal shooting) in two of three at the Garden (after 21 straight losses there) and got past the Celtics to the Finals to play against the Lakers. Taking them to seven games after being up 3-2 posed the next mountain they would have to climb. On their way to their first title in 1989, they would defeat the vaunted Celtics under different circumstances, as Boston was the eighth seed and were swept by the 63-win Pistons. Ah, what it was like to be on the other side for once.

They would meet for the last time (for awhile) in the 1991 semi-finals with the Pistons winning in six as the stars of the rivalries birth would become ghosts of lore. The rivalry moved into other areas. As president of basketball operations, Bird would go on to fire Thomas as coach of the Indiana Pacers and replace him with Rick Carlisle, a former teammate and coach of the Pistons.

The Celtics and Pistons have touched base in the playoffs after the turn of the century and Detroit won the title in 2004, under the guidance of team president Joe Dumars. The Celtics have been mired in misery until the trade for Kevin Garnett. After failing to land Ohio State’s Greg Oden or Texas star Kevin Durant, former Celtic and now front office head Danny Ainge pulled off the multi-player deal that brought Garnett to Boston and everything is now very familiar once again.

The Celtics were tops in the East with Detroit finishing not far behind. Their regular season games have been exciting, tough, gut-wrenching and spirited—to say the least. Although both teams pay lip service to the media and claim these games were meaningless, by watching these games you can see that was far from the truth. Each and every possession has fans on the edge of their seats, living and dying with each turn of each quarter, downplaying the losses and inflating the importance of the wins.

The Detroit win in Boston on December 19, 87-85, was the Celts’ first at home this season and was decided by two late free throws by Piston captain Chauncey Billups. The Celtics returned the favor at the Palace with a 92-85 win on January fifth and a 90-78 spanking in Boston. You could see it in the player’s faces, and I feel it in my heart. The two were on a path all season to meet and rekindle the ghosts of battles past in this year’s post season with the finals in their sites and the next stage of this historic rivalry to be written.

With memory lane out of the way, let's get down to new business, this year's Eastern Conference Finals. Are the Pistons the underdogs because they have the second best record? Or are they the favorites because the Celtics have been through two grueling seven game series through the first two rounds of the playoffs?

While the company line in Detroit is that it didn't matter who they met this round, its a safe bet that the team likes the idea of having to go through Boston once again to get where they want to go. While avenging the humiliation of last season's meltdown versus the Cavaliers would have been satisfying, beating the number one team in the league may be most rewarding.

"I've always felt like, to be the best, you have to beat the best," veteran reserve Lindsey Hunter stated. "They've been the best team in the NBA all season, so it's fitting that we meet in the conference finals. I look forward to a hard-fought series. I know, watching them, how hard they play, how they dominate their home court, it's going to be a great challenge for us."

The fact is that the Pistons would rather be the underdogs; the team that isn't supposed to win and the club that is chasing, not being chased. With the return and readiness of team captain Chauncey Billups, he knows the pulse of this team and how they play their best ball and when the Celtics came though in game seven, the team weren't concerned.

"It was fine," Chauncey chatted. "And to be honest, what they did in the regular season, they warranted a lot of that media love that they were getting. You win 66 games ... you deserve a lot of credit for that. But we love being the hunter. That's our best mode, when we're hunting teams down."

Rasheed Wallace, who will take turns trying to keep Kevin Garnett grounded, thinks that Boston is the league darlings, much more like the Cavs last season, and refers to them as "Team NBA". In reading and watching Sheed for awhile now, I like to think I have a clue as to what we means, and that the grand NBA plan doesn't include Detroit.

"They're the NBA team this year," Sheed says. "I love going against teams like that -- Team NBA, as I like to call it."

What's next? Lets look at the positions and who might have the edge.

Point Guard

Even though he missed the final two games of the Orlando series, Billups was a game time decision in game five and almost played. Another week of rest and treatment is nothing but a benefit for him and the other veterans on the Piston club. Rajon Rondo is much improved over last season and even the beginning of this season, but his inconsistent play during the playoffs gives Detroit the edge.

Edge: Detroit

Shooting Guard

A contrast of hot and cold at this position. Rip Hamilton logged back-to-back 30+ games (wins) for the Pistons while Billups was out. Ray Allen and the term "non-factor" have been beaten to death, but he has not played well. Now he will have to add chasing Rip off all of those screens and seems to be easily frustrated by the officials more all the time.

Edge: Detroit

Small Forward

Tough call here. Tayshaun Prince is coming on as a scorer and has played his usual solid defense sprinkled with sparkling spectacular plays at times. The blocked breakaway dunk on Mo Evans was reminiscent of the one on Reggie Miller a few seasons back and the block on Hedo Turkoglu was as clutch as there has ever been. How much offense he can muster and defense he can make Paul Pierce play will be key here. With a couple more "ifs" than I would like, I will concede this position, but not by much.

Edge: Boston

Power Forward

After coming off the bench a couple games after breaking his nose, Antonio McDyess has regained his starting role and played well at the end of the Orlando series while grieving the loss of his grandmother. His outside shooting will be key in occupying Kevin Garnett, but you have to give the edge to the all-around brilliance to KG, who gets the edge over everyone.

Edge: Boston


As much as the defensive assignments may change, the center position should be just as much a mismatch as the PF slot. Rasheed Wallace can be one of the best offensive players in the game when he dedicates himself to ruling the post. He can be down-right unfair when he has it going from three and his defense is underrated but very solid. His savvy and basketball smarts belie his outbursts and if he can play his usual solid game at both ends, he should easily out-perform Kendrick Perkins.

Edge: Detroit

Boston is 8-0 at home this postseason but have yet to win on the road. Detroit has been the favorite through their two rounds of playoffs and are finally in their most comfortable role, the underdog. Some may say the Celts have become the underdogs with their difficult road and the fact that while they had the a league-best 66 wins, this group haven't been through the wars like the Piston core has.

I'm going to play the role of home (big surprise) and predict a Piston series win in seven games. They should at least split one of the first two in Boston and as the series wears on, the rest factor could become critical. Their bench will have to come through with big minutes and plays as much energy and emotion were expended to get to this series and I like the Piston Pine much better. The season was spent by Detroit to get the bench big minutes and the energy they'll need to bring will be crucial.

The top two defensive teams in the NBA and both will try and impose their will. In a dogfight and a close series, I believe that the Leprechaun is finally out of of luck.

I am going to be joining The Steve Mason Show (over the phone) to talk Pistons-Celtics on 710 ESPN Radio in Los Angeles tomorrow (Tuesday), May 20, at 6pm Eastern Time.