Garnett, Celtics Take Game 1

Boston Improves to 9-0 at Home in the Playoffs After Holding Off Detroit: Celtics 88, Pistons 79

Today's hot topics with The Post's Tony Kornheiser, Michael Wilbon and Sports Editor Cindy Boren.
By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 21, 2008; Page E01

BOSTON, May 20 -- Despite being undefeated at home in the playoffs, the Boston Celtics suddenly found themselves in the role of underdog for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Tuesday night. Their back-to-back seven-game struggles with Atlanta and Cleveland, many believed, left them ripe for the ornery Detroit Pistons in the series opener.

But the Celtics got the requisite performances from two of their Big Three, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, and relied primarily on the league's best defense to take Game 1 from Detroit, 88-79, before a raucous crowd in the "new" Garden that would have made Celtics from Bill Russell to Larry Bird proud.

"This was the perfect game for them to come in and try to steal one," said Pierce (22 points), who scored 41 in the finale against Cleveland on Sunday. "And we were aware of that."

The Celtics found enough firepower even with Ray Allen (nine points) still missing offensively and mired in one of the worst stretches of his distinguished career.

Seven-game series used to be described as "long series," but too many things can happen early that can chart an irreversible course. The Phoenix Suns know their dramatic Game 1 loss to San Antonio in double overtime devastated them emotionally in a way they couldn't recover. The Celtics, having played the maximum 14 games in two rounds, knew they were already tired and had to somehow summon the energy to win Game 1 Tuesday . . . or be in big trouble right off the bat.

Six prominent Celtics -- Allen, P.J. Brown, Sam Cassell, Garnett, Eddie House and Pierce -- are 30 or older. Forward Kendrick Perkins admitted before Game 1 that Game 7 against Cleveland was taxing. "Guys were fatigued the next day," he said. "I mean, really hurting. Paul was banged up. We had to leave everything on the court to win that game."

Asked whether such an epic effort in Game 7 could hurt the Celtics in this series, Perkins said: "It could hurt you. But too much time off destroys your rhythm." Kendrick said he knew the Boston bench players were going to play an enormous role, both because the Detroit bench is so deep and versatile, and because the Celtics starters figured to be tired.

Of course, the Celtics entered the game undefeated at home in these playoffs, 8-0. And the city could hardly be in a better mood about its sports teams, what with the Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester, a lymphoma survivor, having thrown a no-hitter just 24 hours earlier, and that coming 24 hours after the Game 7 thriller against LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Only the news that the icon of all New England icons, Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, has a malignant brain tumor dampened the spirit of Bostonians.

The building and the Celtics seemed to have their full energy levels when the game started. The Celtics jumped to an 8-0 lead and wound up executing their offense as smoothly as is reasonable possible against a defense as good as Detroit's.

Boston shot 51 percent in the first half and managed to hold the Pistons to 39 percent shooting. Chauncey Billups (nine points), returning from a hamstring injury he suffered in the Orlando series, scored just nine points.

But the news wasn't all good for the Celtics. Perhaps the foul disparity was a hint of a little early fatigue. Detroit hit 14 of 17 free throws while the Celtics hit only 3 of 7, which helped result in a 41-40 Boston halftime lead that seemed precarious, considering the opponent.

The Celtics had another infusion of energy to start the third quarter, and built the lead back to 54-46. It might have reached double digits right then, except that repeated attempts to set up Allen, his shooting touch having completely disappeared, let the Pistons stay closer than they might have. Still, with an eight-point lead, Celtics Coach Doc Rivers decided to rest his star, Garnett, instead of sending him any deeper into the game tired, having to fend off the Pistons. It certainly helped Rivers's decision that Detroit's Rasheed Wallace (11 points), having no impact on Game 1 through three quarters anyway, committed his fourth foul midway through the fourth and angrily went to the bench.

"We just didn't seem to be in a good flow, it might have had something to do with [the six-day layoff]. We were just a step slow," Pistons Coach Flip Saunders said. "We didn't get into the flow."

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