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BOSTON -- Kevin Garnett wasn't afraid to come out afterward and state exactly what this game was: a measuring stick. And one measure of how good the new and improved Boston Celtics are was gleaned by listening to Chauncey Billups afterward. "That is an elite team," Billups said. Elite, maybe, but not elite enough to measure up to the franchise that has been the class of the Eastern Conference for the better part of the decade. Elite, maybe, but not smart enough to avoid a boneheaded play at the end. Elite, maybe, but not wise enough to get the ball into the hands of Ray Allen or Garnett, the two guys who had been putting their heart and soul into every second of this playoff-like game, instead of giving it to Paul Pierce on their final possession, entrusting the biggest shot of the game to a player who had been looking tentative all night. There are at least a dozen different reasons why the Detroit Pistons were able to eke out an 87-85 victory over Boston on Wednesday night in what was easily one of the most competitive, riveting and intense games we've ever seen played in mid-December, but all those reasons begin to boil down to the same common denominators: experience, savvy and depth. When did the Pistons begin to seize control of the game? Not until the early part of the fourth quarter when Celtics coach Doc Rivers gave Rajon Rondo a rest and handed over the ballhandling chores to Eddie House, who could barely get the ball over the halfcourt line against the suffocating defense of Lindsey Hunter, still regarded as perhaps the top on-the-ball defender in the league. A 9-2 run put the Pistons ahead 70-67 before Rondo returned, and Detroit never trailed again. When did the Pistons deliver the knockout punch? Well, the play-by-play and the replays will tell you it came when Billups faked Tony Allen off his feet and drew a foul with 0.1 seconds left that sent him to the line for the tiebreaking and game-deciding free throws. But a big assist came moments earlier when the Pistons were exiting their timeout and Tayshaun Prince noticed that Tony Allen had checked back in as a defender.
DALLAS -- There was a lot to take in on the most dramatic night of the season so far. You had the epic Pistons-Celtics finish in Boston, Alonzo Mourning's injury heartbreak in Atlanta and scoreboard surprises all over the place: San Antonio losing at Memphis on a Rudy Gay buzzer-beater, Cleveland getting throttled at New York and Utah extending its puzzling freefall with a fall-from-ahead loss at Charlotte.Dallas and Phoenix, meanwhile, met late Wednesday night after almost all of the above and duly delivered what they always seem to give us. "Instant Classic," said Suns swingman Raja Bell. This one didn't go to double-overtime like the teams' last meeting here in March, but Bell wasn't exaggerating. The Mavs only escaped with a 108-105 victory, after squandering double-digit leads in the first quarter as well as the fourth, when Steve Nash ducked inside Josh Howard to free himself for a potential game-tying 3 at the buzzer . . . and then failed to even graze the rim with it. Yet that was merely the wild closing sequence from a matchup that, as always, had tons to see. A quickie review:
• Ignore the tight score. This was the best Dallas has played all season. This was the first glimpse of the team that won 67 games last season. The Mavs (18-9) couldn't build on the 17-point lead they had after the opening period and couldn't put Phoenix away after going up 14 in the fourth, but that's only because the Suns (18-8) were playing with such high energy and efficiency after their dreadful start. You could see the season's first noticeable flickers of swagger from the Mavs, tough as it was for the hosts to get any lasting separation from Phoenix. The crowd must have noticed, too, because the American Airlines Center was louder than it's been all season, including a mid-November home win over the Spurs.
• Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash are getting older. This was confirmed Tuesday night, on the eve of the game, when Nash and wife Alejandra brought their twin girls, Lola and Bella, to Nowitzki's house for a "family" reunion with Nowitzki's parents, sister Silke, brother-in-law Rollie and infant nephew Lenny, all of whom had flown in from Germany. Yet that's where the Hallmark stuff stopped. In a more physical game than usual, described by Suns coach Mike D'Antoni as "wild and woolly," these old pals reminded you why they've combined to win the NBA's last three MVP trophies. Nowitzki scored Dallas' final eight points to finish with 31, including a dagger 3 and a tougher jump hook in the (crowded) lane to hush his growing legion of critics. Nash only countered with 21 points and 18 assists before the airball, shrugging off a Devin Harris shot to the chin down the stretch that required eight post-game stitches.
• Harris came right back at Nash with 21 points, six assists and three steals in just under 32 minutes. His confidence has been noticeably sapped since Mavs coach Avery Johnson took back play-calling responsibilities earlier this month, but this was probably Harris' best performance of the season as well. His swipe from behind on a Nash drive in crunch time was as big a play as Dallas mustered late.
• I sure hope the highlight shows got both of Grant Hill's turn-back-the-clock dunks, including one sick drive and throwdown over DeSagana Diop. Hill's father, Calvin, was sitting not far behind me next to an unlikely couple: Suns general manager Steve Kerr and a current Cowboy named Terrell Owens. I wish I could aptly describe the look of sneering approval on TO's face when Hill flushed on Diop. (Hill also threw a sneaky lob to Shawn Marion on the last play of the first half that enabled Marion to beat the buzzer with an acrobatic layup.) • Perhaps the most standout stuff happened at the center spot. Dallas' Erick Dampier rarely sees court time against the Suns because the Suns usually run him off the floor. But Dampier had eight points, 10 boards and five blocks in nearly 30 minutes, with all four of his baskets coming in that blowout first quarter in which he legitimately tortured Amare Stoudemire. "You never know if we can use Damp in a game like this because they're so quick and explosive," Nowitzki said. "But he made it work tonight." Amare, though, responded just like he did in San Antonio on Monday night, imposing himself in the second half. He was a non-factor in the first half against the Spurs, too, but wound up hurting Dallas with the sort of unparalleled agility combined with determined activity at both ends that would solve a lot of the Suns' defensive issues if they got that package consistently. Stoudemire had 14 points and two blocks in the fourth quarter alone and finished with 25 points, eight boards and four swats, then attributed the defeat to his non-presence in the first. "I put it on my shoulders," Stoudemire said.
-- Andrew Ayres
It wasn't just the 27 points scored by Grizzlies guard Juan Carlos Navarro that impressed me in Memphis' 123-119 win at Orlando, but also how he scored those 27. He hit three straight 3s in the last seven minutes of the game -- one gave them the lead, one stretched the margin and one iced the game. All three were cold-blooded, meaning he never hesitated, and everyone in the building knew they were going in.
Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images
After refusing a stretcher ride for what could be his final game ever, Alonzo Mourning walks off the court after tearing the patellar tendon in his right knee in Miami's loss to Atlanta.
Two guards who were on opposite sides of the Celtics-Pistons rivalry in the 1980s now are heads of each team's basketball operations. Danny Ainge (Celtics) and Joe Dumars (Pistons) have put together what many consider to be the top 2 teams in the Eastern Conference.
On The Court
|Seasons with team||8 ('81-89)||14 ('85-99)|
|NBA Titles with team||2||2|
In The Front Office
|Seasons with team||5 ('03-Pres)||8 ('00-Pres)|
Mike (AL): How long would a game of H-O-R-S-E last between NBA players? I say 12 shots each.David Thorpe: Maybe if Ben Wallace was playing Shaq. Ray Allen vs. Kevin Martin or Michael Redd? All day. Patrick (Portland, OR): Still rather have Rudy Gay than Brandon Roy? Two straight POW's, nine game-winning streak (over mostly playoff teams), averaging almost 25 pt, 6 reb and 7 ast during the streak ... and CLUTCH in the fourth quarter! David Thorpe: The draft has never been about who is better today, but about who will be better tomorrow. I love Roy, but I like Gay's upside more. Check the ages on both too.