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Early home tests may be tough

Yes, the November schedule looks good. There are 14 games, 10 of which are at the TD Banknorth Garden. Even a couple of the roadies (Charlotte, Atlanta) appear to be benign.

But a closer look at the home games -- starting tonight -- reveals the more depressing part of the story. The young Celtics are going to get tested the same way they used to vote in the city of Chicago -- early and often.

The best team in the conference in the last two years is in town tonight. Outside of a coaching change, which can sometimes be a good thing, there isn't a whole lot of difference in the new version of the Detroit Pistons. Detroit still has the same, resilient starting five, arguably the best in the league. There's still a more-than-serviceable bench with a couple of veteran add-ons. There's the experience factor the Celtics of today can only dream about.

It's hard to forget the last time the Pistons came through town. The Celtics were in their post-Antoine feel-good mood and took a 115-113 decision in double overtime March 11. That is Boston's only victory over the Pistons in the last two years (against six losses) and the Celtics danced on the courtside tables as if they'd won more than a game. It was the second victory in what would turn out to be a seven-game winning streak.

We know what happened after that. The Celtics deconstructed in the playoffs. The Pistons went to the NBA Finals and nearly came back to Detroit with a second straight championship. All the main principals, save coach Larry Brown, are back.

''My biggest concern? The veterans," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers yesterday. ''We're playing a team that has been together. Hell, they were world champions and then last year, second place. Obviously, this is a very good team. They've been together so long. They know each other so well. If I had one concern, it'd be that."

Then there's Richard Hamilton, who, Rivers said, had 60 screens set for him in the Pistons' 108-88 victory over Philadelphia Wednesday night. That's 6-0. Hamilton, who moves without the ball as well as anyone in the game, used a lot of them well, scoring 37 points. After the game, new Sixers coach Maurice Cheeks said of the Pistons, ''They had 30 assists and we had 11 and that's not going to work. They look like a veteran team when they move the ball. We look like a team that has to get better."

Delonte West, one of the heroes of the Celtics' opening-night victory over New York, already had his Chauncey Billups tape cut for viewing. Like West, Billups isn't a classic point guard. Unlike West, Billups has the experience and savvy of which Rivers spoke, not to mention the comfort factor of playing so long with Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace, and Rasheed Wallace.

''The thing he's brilliant at," West said of Billups, ''is that he balances distributing the ball to the player who needs touches with the ability to use his offense at the same time. We sort of know [Knicks point guard Stephon] Marbury was kind of a dribble-drive guy who tried to break you down. Chauncey can kill you either way."

A complete Flip

New Detroit coach Flip Saunders, a laid-back type who was pushed out of Minnesota last season in a failed attempt to get the Timberwolves into the playoffs, has replaced the notoriously finicky Brown. The change came only after Brown was supposedly pursuing a job in Cleveland (which he denies) while the Pistons were still in the playoffs. ''There aren't a lot of distractions this year and that has to be good for them," Rivers said of the coaching situation in Detroit. ''You know how it is. A new coach comes in, even after you've won, and the players want to prove they can win with the other coach as well. For whatever sick reason, because you know they actually loved Larry. But at the end of the day, they still want to show him they can win without him. If you're the new coach, it's a good thing, I can tell you that." . . . Al Jefferson was one of six Celtics to stay late at practice yesterday to get in better game condition. Big Al once again battled foul trouble Wednesday night; he had four in 13 minutes, although he collected eight rebounds in the Celtics' manhandling of the Knicks on the glass (the Celtics had 57 rebounds; the Knicks had 41). ''He's close," Rivers said, when queried as to Jefferson's game-readiness. When asked where Jefferson, slowed in the exhibition season with a sprained left ankle, is behind the most, Rivers said, ''Everywhere. He still isn't moving great. Right now, you can see he's playing the thinking man's offense instead of the reaction man's offense. He's still thinking about what we're running instead of running it. And that's from just not playing." . . . One of Saunders's goals is to get playing time for third-year big man Darko Milicic. Notice we didn't say ''more playing time" because Milicic got virtually none under Brown, who has little use for rookies on veteran-established teams. Milicic showed signs of promise in the exhibition season, twice blocking six shots in a game. In the opener, he played eight minutes and had 2 points, 2 rebounds, and a blocked shot.

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