Among the Celtics' goals is to rout the opposition, allowing the starters to take a fourth-quarter break. But few could have expected them to accomplish that against the Detroit Pistons.
The Eastern Conference finals seemed a distant memory last night, the Celtics (11-2) taking a 98-80 win over the Pistons, their greatest margin of victory since last season.
After having Kevin Garnett sit out an entire game (he was suspended for the 110-101 win over New York Tuesday), the Celtics starters sat out nearly half this contest, the rest expected to benefit them for tonight's visit to Minnesota. This was the Celtics' fifth double-digit margin of victory - and second over Detroit, following an 88-76 win Nov. 9 - and was actually the most comfortable victory of the season, the lead reaching 29 points midway through the final quarter.
Rajon Rondo (18 points, eight assists) led the way with offensive penetrations and defensive disruptions, requiring only 26 minutes of playing time for his highest-scoring output of the sea son. Rondo outdueled Allen Iverson (16 points), raising questions about the Pistons' ability to adjust after acquiring the point guard from Denver for Chauncey Billups.
"We think Rondo matches up with Iverson quickness for quickness," said Paul Pierce (9 points), "and especially when you don't expect him to outscore Iverson, it's definitely a big plus. It just takes a lot of pressure off a lot of other guys. Nobody really had to have a huge night."
The Celtics continued a slow-start trend, falling behind, 13-2, in the opening minutes. But they gained their composure, closing the opening quarter tied, 21-21.
After that, the game consisted of the Celtics extending their lead and the Pistons wondering what happened to the combativeness and resilience they displayed in reaching their sixth successive Eastern Conference final in May.
"This is probably one of the better teams, not only in the Eastern Conference but in our league," Garnett said. "It's a team we might see later on, so the more, the merrier. We watched them play Cleveland [a 96-89 Detroit win Wednesday], and we knew that we had to bring it. For the most part, we were talkative, we had energy, and I don't think we looked back."
Garnett (15 points) not only turned up the volume, he brought a matchup the Pistons forwards (Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace totaled 17 points) were unable to counter.
But the most revealing battle was Rondo vs. Iverson.
"Rondo won a couple matchups last year when his speed was a factor," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, referring to the Pistons with Billups. "So, yes, it's a bonus whenever you can win at that position against them. Both of them [Billups and Iverson] are terrific.
"Chauncey was just a tough matchup, just because of his size, but [Iverson] started out the game and that wasn't any fun, either. I would prefer not to play either one."
"They are both tough scorers," Rondo said. "It doesn't take one man to stop them, it takes a team."
Said Iverson, "[Rondo] played great. He utilized the pick-and-roll great in the third quarter. He did an excellent job coming off and attacking off their big men. He went to the basket to create shots for himself and opportunities for his teammates. They are not the champions for nothing. They have a great defense and they execute on offense. They have three excellent offensive players and other guys to feed off of those guys. So we have to figure out something."
The Celtics set the tone with a 26-8 spurt in a 9:45 span over the opening two quarters, Garnett's foul shot giving them a 40-27 lead with 5:13 left in the half. During that time, Rondo converted his first 3-pointer of the season, leading a second-unit charge along with a freelancing Tony Allen and long-range bombing by Eddie House (11 points, 3 of 4 on 3-pointers) and Brian Scalabrine (1 for 2 on 3-pointers).
The starters returned late in the half and continued to extend the lead.
Wallace committed two fouls (departing with five personals) in a 37-second span late in the third quarter, symbolizing the Pistons' lack of effectiveness. Rondo's foul shot extended the Celtics' advantage to 75-52 with 2:57 remaining in the third quarter.
"Our spacing was great," Rivers said. "We talked about it a lot during the first quarter during timeouts - our spacing was bad. We thought we had driving lanes but we were kind of walking out to the 3-point line to get space instead of spreading out and taking guys with them. I thought they did that in the second quarter, and that all owed guys to drive to the paint."
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com.