With the proverbial monkey off their backs (in the case of the Celtics playoff road woes, it was probably a 250 lb. Silverback Gorilla), the Boston Celtics can smell blood.
After being told they couldn’t win a meaningful road game against a quality opponent, the Celtics waltzed into the Palace at Auburn Hills on Saturday night and thoroughly outplayed the Pistons in front of their home crowd.
From the opening tip, the Celtics looked more and more like the team that boasted a 31-10 road record during the regular season, good for first in the NBA.
They made the extra pass, clamped down defensively, dictated pace, and stole back the home court advantage they’d lost in the previous contest.
In short, they looked like the team that won 66 games in the regular season by playing a distinctive style of hard-nosed, defense-first basketball with a penchant for offensive balance and versatility.
If you watched the Celtics huge Game 3 win on the road, a few things stood out and deserve notice heading into Game 4:
One, is Chauncey Billups at all healthy? While Detroit utilized Rodney Stuckey as an effective, athletic scoring threat, Billups warmed the bench. Even in the beginning of the fourth quarter, Billups was a spectator as the Pistons tried to make one last push to get the deficit into single digits.
As productive as Stuckey has been thus far in the series, the Pistons and their postseason pedigree just aren’t the same without their floor general out there.
You can point to any number of things that Chauncey does effectively as a reason for this: the way he establishes tempo, the way he seemingly always hits amazingly difficult shots with the shot clock winding down, the way he bullies Rajon Rondo down on the low block.
Whatever you like most about Billups' well-rounded game, Detroit needs him, at the very least, to distribute the ball and get open looks for his floor mates.
Billups was quiet and passive in Detroit’s two losses, assertive and dominant in Detroit’s one win. Coincidence? Not at all.
Two, the Celtics finally played with poise and identity on the road. In their previous six road losses in these 2008 playoffs, the Celtics seemed to wither from adversity and a hostile environment.
They were totally out of rhythm on offense, struggled to communicate on defense (their strong suit all year), and were easily frazzled by even the No. 8 seed Atlanta’s home crowd.
No one—not even Garnett or Pierce—wanted to take the ball and reverse the momentum. They simply looked nothing like the team that won 66 games together as a cohesive unit throughout the regular season.
But in Game 3 against Detroit, it was as if every player on the floor had the confidence to deliver a big time shot. James Posey took, and made, the open looks provided to him, Paul Pierce answered several Detroit bursts with huge threes in the fourth quarter, and the Celtics as a whole stayed active on the glass and created second chance opportunities that seemed to deflate Detroit on defense.
They were quicker to every ball and just seemed to believe that they could, and would, make a play down the stretch. Again, when comparing this effort to those previous six road debacles, it was like night and day.
Three, the Celtics got much better balance from their role players. Game 2 saw Boston’s “Big Three” score 75 points but Detroit escape with a victory. So much for the theory that Boston can win solely by leaning on Garnett, Allen, and Pierce alone.
No, as we all know, basketball is a team sport and you rarely win by getting limited production from your supplementary contributors. The ever-important role players often times play a bigger part in the deciding of who wins and loses than the media and fans would like to think. They are a huge reason why the Celtics are where they are today.
Just check the Game 3 box score and the stats speak for themselves:
Kendrick Perkins outscored Paul Pierce, Sam Cassell added some instant offense off the bench, James Posey notched 12 big bench points, and P.J. Brown logged 21 steady minutes.
If you’re Doc Rivers, you have to love the way nine players filled up the stat sheet, as opposed to essentially just three in the Game 2 loss. These role players were all critical factors in why the Celtics answered those road worries with an authoritative, aggressive road win.
These three points I bring up are all critical going into Game 4: How effective will Chauncey Billups play and how many minutes will he log down the stretch? How will the Celtics respond to the pressurizing obstacles inherent in winning a road game where the home team is in a must-win situation? How will Celtics not named Allen, Pierce, or Garnett supplement their star-studded teammates?
You better believe Detroit will be playing with an increased sense of urgency tonight. You have to believe Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace will respond from weak Game 3s with poised, productive Game 4s. You would be wise to believe the Detroit crowd will be revved up and ready to give their aging squad that sixth man presence of a great playoff crowd.
The Boston Celtics can neutralize all of that if they just believe in what’s gotten them here.