BOSTON – Karma, Joe Dumars was saying. He's taught the Detroit Pistons to believe in karma, taught them that the good comes back to you. This is the reason he never got angry with Chauncey Billups for playing the part of buddy to Kevin Garnett, for telling him it would be wise to take that trade to the Celtics.
Back in the summer, Billups shrugged and explained himself this way to Dumars: "Hey, it's good karma, man. I did what's right."
Five months later, on a cold December morning at the new Boston Garden, Dumars considered the consequences of Billups' act of friendship for an old Timberwolves teammate.
Chauncey, you told KG to do … what?
"I did have to swallow hard," Dumars said with a smile, "but I accepted the good karma."
As it turns out, these Celtics are the best thing to happen to these Pistons. Deep down, Dumars loves it. Hours before Billups punctuated a magnificent performance with old-school guard play on Wednesday night, beating the Celtics with guile and guts and two free throws with one-tenth of a second left in an 87-85 victory, Dumars sat 20 rows back in the Garden stands talking about how it was all starting again for them.
Boston always brought out the competitor within him, the fire, and touching down at Logan International Airport still brings it rushing back to him. "To have Boston back in the mix is good for the NBA," Dumars said, but he knew: "It's good for Detroit, too.
They still stop him on the streets here and want to talk about Larry Bird's steal and pass to Dennis Johnson, about Robert Parish punching out Bill Laimbeer and how those Bad Boys ended The Big Three's conference championship run. For better and worse, there was nothing like chasing the Celtics in the '80s, nothing like the way that it molded mettle.
Boston brought out Dumars' best, and all these years later, he had a sneaking suspicion that these Celtics could do it again for the Pistons.
So Dumars watched Billups end this fierce, frenetic meeting between the two best teams in the East with a clinic on intelligent, savvy basketball. Garnett was brilliant with 26 points and 12 rebounds and Ray Allen hit a wild three-pointer to make it 86-86 with 18.9 seconds and Billups would get two chances in the final six seconds to end Boston's nine-game winning streak, end its perfect season at the Garden.
Pity poor Tony Allen, who hustled into the game cold to defend the steamy Billups on those final two chances. With 1.7 seconds left, Billups caught an inbounds pass beyond the free-throw line, and it didn't matter that Celtics coach Doc Rivers had spent the past 24 hours telling his guards to remember the pump fakes with Billups, to think pump-fake, pump-fake when they wanted to leave their feet with him. Only, Allen found himself flying through the air, crashing into Billups and sending him to the free-throw line for his 27th and 28th points with the clock reading :01.
Together, Boston and Detroit are chasing the Eastern Conference championship again, and yes, something started between these two teams again. Something long, lost stirred here. These are the two best teams in the East, and Billups confessed, "I could feel it. I could definitely feel it."
There are no big games in December, but there are road markers along the way to the playoffs. For several reasons, this was important for the Pistons. As they suspected, they have legitimate matchups with the Celtics. Who else but Rasheed Wallace can draw Garnett away from the basket on defense? Tayshaun Prince has wiry strength and length to defend Paul Pierce. And even with the remarkable progress of Rajon Rondo, Billups conducted a clinic at the kid's expense.
Few noticed the smart way that Dumars had re-tooled the Pistons with young legs and bright young talent this past summer, but how could they with the hysteria over Garnett and Allen making the Celtics relevant again. As the rest of the East's contenders – Cleveland, Chicago, Miami and New Jersey – have struggled, the Pistons have lurked in the Celtics' shadows. They took some defeats on a tough Western Conference trip, sustained the loss of remarkable rookie Rodney Stuckey whom Dumars and Billups love and cherished the chance to let the Celtics turn them into an afterthought.
The Celtics commandeered the magazine covers, and the silly ESPN commercials and, well, no one has ever wanted the Pistons for those things. "We're at our best when we can hunt people," Billups said. "I hope they win every game until we play them again. But we're not going anywhere. We're going to be around."
No one understands these Pistons the way Dumars does, and so much of that is because they reflect his sensibilities, his values. They've won a championship, gone to a Game 7 of the NBA Finals and reached five straight conference finals together. Yet, the Pistons need an edge. They need a cause. Not the GM, nor the coach, nor the roster, has been blessed with the DNA of a frontrunner. The Celtics are still 20-3, and next week no one will remember the winner of Wednesday night's game. All the way, this promises to be the Celtics' season, until someone takes it away from them in May, maybe June.
"This isn't a bad thing for us," Dumars said. "It's kind of fun to see someone else held up to the light. We've been there before. We've had the 64-win season. We've had the best record in the East several times in this seven-year run. It's kind of refreshing for us to step back a little bit and watch someone else get out there and lead the way."
It was late Wednesday and the Pistons president was waiting to greet his ballplayers at the end of the corridor. This wasn't the old Garden, and this hadn't been the old Big Three, but the satisfaction on an old Pistons face was unmistakable. Joe Dumars had a basketball team come to Boston and they sent those Celtics fans into the night in a stunned silence. The years just melted way.
"It's real," Dumars said. "They're good. We're good."
Finally, he just smiled and nodded again.