This was late December, late in the morning, and Joe Dumars let the silence wash over his championship bones 20 rows high in an empty Boston Garden. Once more, he could feel it, this thing they had, the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons. Alive again.
“It’s great for the league that Boston is one of the best teams again,” Dumars would say that morning.
In its own way, this Celtics renaissance was greater for the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons needed the nudge. They’re growing older, grumpier and they had lost their edge getting chased in the Eastern Conference. They needed Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen delivered to Boston, the horns and trumpets, the magazine covers and SportsCenter commercials, the coronation that came with 66 victories. They needed basketball – even Boston – to buy into the mirage that the Celtics could march into these Eastern Conference finals un-bloodied and untested.
All along, the Pistons promised: We’ll be waiting. So, here they are for Game 1 at the Boston Garden. The Pistons are a curious cast of characters, relentlessly determined and tough, and strangely flawed of focus. All along, they needed the Celtics waiting for them. They needed the history and heartache, the celebration of a sport that desperately wants to do away with the boring, plodding Pistons. Between Christmas and Memorial Day weekend, the Pistons private prayers have unfolded perfectly: How are those bright lights now?
“It’s kind of fun to see someone else held up to the light,” Dumars said then. “We’ve been there before. We’ve had the 64 win season. We’ve had the best record in the East several times. So for us, it’s kind of refreshing to step back a little bit and watch someone else get out there and lead the way.”
Together, this Pistons core has gone through so much together, good and bad, loyalty and treachery, Rick Carlisle and Larry Brown and Flip Saunders. They’ve won a title, reached a Game 7 in the NBA Finals and spit out a conference title to LeBron James. Deep down, these Celtics are still unsure. They told themselves that the Atlanta series was an aberration, but Cleveland condemned the struggles to a pattern.
For as much as the Celtics believed the regular season galvanized them, the playoffs have exposed frailties that Paul Pierce’s Game 7 deliverance over LeBron James doesn’t eliminate. Allen has had an embarrassing postseason and the prospects of these eager Pistons defenders chasing him everywhere doesn’t seem an immediate remedy.
The Celtics have been picked apart in public, critiqued on toughness and character, on whether they have the stomach to deliver a victory beyond Boston’s borders. Nevertheless, this is an old-time Eastern Conference series, born of Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas, Kevin McHale and Dumars. As soon as the Pistons charter touched down at Logan Airport in December, Dumars was hearing all about it around town.
They don’t forget there. Too much history, too much drama. Now, the Celtics are back and this is such an important thing for the NBA. The league is stronger with Boston, with those 16 championship banners hanging over its playoffs. As it turns out, so are the Detroit Pistons. They’ve lurked long enough this season.
Once and for all this season, everyone gets to find out about the legitimacy of these Boston Celtics. Out of the shadows, here come the Pistons. How are those bright lights now?