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Boston's Big Three exposed after home loss

BOSTON – The grapes sat unplucked, the spaghetti hardly touched. The Boston Celtics had cleared out of their locker room with a purpose not seen during much of the night as the Detroit Pistons handed them their first home loss of the playoffs, 103-97.

There would be no music, no time for a postgame buffet or even quick conversation. Guys just dressed quietly and bailed.

The Eastern Conference finals are now even at 1-1. The Celtics were now facing a must-win situation away from the Garden, and they failed to win in six tries on the road during the first two rounds of the playoffs.

And while everyone wanted to say it wasn't a big thing – these repetitive road woes – the truth is that now we get to see the true mettle of Boston's newfangled Big Three.

The time for sunshine patriots and summer soldiers is at home, where the raucous crowd and hanging banners can help shots fall, intensity soar and victories arrive. Anyone can win at home – heck, even the 37-win Atlanta Hawks did it three times in the playoffs, albeit against the Celtics.

"I'm excited about it," offered Ray Allen in a hopeful tone long after the locker room had cleared out. "We just put ourselves in a position where we've put our backs up against the wall."

What else can Boston say? The Big Three tried to shrug it off, but they had to acknowledge that, yes, it is something.

They've yet to show the kind of focus, discipline and determination the Pistons did Thursday, when with a precise effort, minimal turnovers and big plays late they seized control of the game, the series and perhaps the Celtics' psyche.

Yes, Boston's bench has been inconsistent – and did little in Game 2 – but the NBA is a stars' league. These stars haven't led.

While everyone has an excuse for the road troubles, the obvious disparity is defense, which is mostly effort and concentration. At home in the first two series Boston allowed an average of just 79.3 points a game. On the road it was 95.3.

It's about heart. And that's why perhaps never before has a 1-1 series seemed so desperate for a No. 1 seed.

"There has to be a different sense of urgency now, a desperation," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "Where you (may have had) a blanket, let's say, of home court; that's been taken away.

"So now you have to go out and cut your teeth and earn your stripes and we'll see."

Shouldn't we have seen already? The trio of Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are all veterans, all wholly committed to winning. It isn't easy to win on the road in the playoffs, but it isn't this difficult either.

Throughout these playoffs they've taken turns panicking, gagging or simply not showing up for road games. There were three against the lowly Hawks, three more against LeBron James' one-man band.

All along the specter – the children's security blanket, as Rivers said – of returning back to the Garden remained. The joke became Boston might win the title going 16-12, never once winning away from here.

It was false hope, a ridiculous notion bolder players would have proudly put to rest weeks ago. Boston only wins a championship if its triumvirate of superstars gets a whole heck of a lot tougher.

"Urgency and desperation," Allen said. "Those are two good words to use."

It is one thing to say it, but will their jumpers stand up to what undoubtedly will be a wild Palace of Auburn Hills crowd? Detroit always has been a brutally tough place to play, the fans combining not just noise and energy but a sense of old-school ferocity not often found in today's luxury box NBA.

When Indiana's Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson famously went into the stands to fight someone who chucked a beer at them back in the fall of 2004, some fans not only fought back, others even charged the court to join in. Hopelessly undersized guys actually were squaring off with NBA behemoths. It may have been stupid and crazy, but that's the point.

You're just not getting that everywhere.

If the Pistons are focused – and playing the spoiler against an establishment team such as the Celtics seems to have their full attention – this is no place to try to end a losing streak.

"I don't think we look at it or think about it like it's a hang-up, like we can't win a basketball game because the building's not full of green and white," Allen said.

Over this long holiday weekend in the Midwest, Boston finds out whether it has a real team. It finds out whether this title talk was all talk, whether it has the grit and guts to match the hype and hoopla.

The Big Three's legacy is on the line again, but no longer with an undermanned opponent across the way. This isn't one of those needlessly difficult opening-round series.

Detroit's veteran core has a way of smelling fear and capitalizing on it. The mood across the hall with the Pistons – music blaring, smiles sharing – wasn't much different Thursday than after the Game 1 loss on Tuesday. It's a confident group with no concerns about winning here, there or anywhere. It's the same way with Los Angeles and San Antonio. It's how champions are supposed to act.

Someone asked Rasheed Wallace if the Pistons were afraid of the Celtics.

"We're not," he said. "A lot of teams they played in the postseason and the regular season were scared of them."

For the Celtics, this is a whole new level, a whole new world, a grown-up test no one, perhaps even themselves, is fully confident they can pass.

As the celebratory beats of the Pistons' music crossed the hall into the Celtics' locker room, the buffet was getting cold, a loss sending everyone home quickly to contemplate his own failings far from here.

"I don't think it's really bothering us, like, psychologically," Pierce said.

Maybe it ought to be.