Pistons 82, Celtics 81

In the second game in the first year of Larry Brown A.D., the Detroit Pistons had to show exactly what they are worth now that the peripatetic coaching genius had taken his legendary act -- and considerable drama -- to the NBA's largest stage in New York.

The Boston Celtics had just taken a one-point lead after center Mark Blount clumsily shuffled the ball -- "He double-dribbled," Pistons guard Chauncey Billups corrected -- then drilled a jumper with eight-tenths of a second remaining. The hard-knock Pistons, having played more games than any team the past two seasons, didn't flinch. Their new coach, Flip Saunders, didn't either.

"It was very calm," guard Richard Hamilton said, describing the huddle. "Coach said, 'We still got a lot of time. We're still going to win this game.' "

Moments later, the Pistons ran Saunders' play to perfection. Hamilton ran around screens set by both Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace, caught a pass from Tayshaun Prince and buried a 17-foot jumper as time expired, as the Pistons won, 82-81, at TD Banknorth Garden.

Hamilton, who scored a game-high 26 points, ran down the court and commenced to chest-bumping everybody in blue. "That's one of the mottos we go by: 'Winners find a way to win,' " Rasheed Wallace said after the Pistons improved to 2-0 this season.

The Pistons have won an NBA championship and come within one quarter of winning another in the past two years and their roster is relatively unchanged. But many prognosticators have doubted whether they still have what it takes to get back to the NBA Finals. The Miami Heat reloaded with the acquisitions of Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, Gary Payton and James Posey, all-star forward Ron Artest returned to the Indiana Pacers and some believe the Pistons have slipped a notch -- especially with Brown on Broadway. "Some people say that without Larry we won't get back, but he wasn't the one out there playing," Rasheed Wallace said. "It's cool, though. We know we're going to be there. It's going to be a lot of bandwagon cats at the end of the year, just like it was last year."

For a team that is fueled by adversity -- -- whether real or make believe -- the hard-knock Pistons have added another chip to their collective shoulders. How dare somebody say they can't win it without Brown? "Before Larry got here, we knew what kind of team we had," Ben Wallace said. "With him gone, we still know we capable of getting it done."

Billups has heard the critics who believe that the Hall of Fame Coach has also taken with him the Pistons chances of winning another championship. "I don't think [the detractors] overrated what [Brown] did. He deserved all that credit. He came here and we won a championship in the first year and we was a minute and half, two minutes from winning it again," Billups said. "But I do think they didn't show us, as a team, the respect we deserve.

But the Pistons have fewer distractions going into the season. With Brown, they often had to worry when their nomadic coach would catch a wondering eye again. Brown had flirtations with the Knicks, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers last season -- a seemingly never-ending saga that wore on the players. "For me, it was like, whatever happens, just let it happen," Billups said. "I was tired of it. We was holding out hope that he would be back, but what can you do? I wish all that wasn't circulating when we was trying to win a championship, you know what I'm saying, if it had just happened at the end of the season, but it didn't really affect us."

The Pistons flipped the page on the Brown era by hiring Saunders, who said he wasn't intimidated about taking the job this summer despite the success Brown had in Detroit. "I want to win," Saunders said yesterday. "My thing was not what this team has done in the past, it's what we have an opportunity to do in the future. So, my decision came pretty easy."

Billups said the Pistons' drive this season has nothing to do with proving they can win without Brown. "Our only motivation is not winning it last year. That's our whole motivation. We thought we was the best team in the world last year and came up a little bit short. We feel the same way again and we want to validate that."