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Celtics (cont.)

Posted: Thursday December 20, 2007 2:05PM; Updated: Thursday December 20, 2007 3:41PM
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Chauncey Billups baited Tony Allen into a foul that led to the game-winning free throws with 0.1 second left.
Chauncey Billups baited Tony Allen into a foul that led to the game-winning free throws with 0.1 second left.
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There were many times early in Tony Parker's career when he was abused by the likes of Stephon Marbury, but he and the Spurs learned the hard way how to combat size and strength with defensive schemes. The Celtics likewise need to figure how Rondo's superior quickness can be forged into a weapon of its own.

Rondo's virtuoso first-half display of 14 points (7-of-9 shooting) with five assists wasn't impressive as much as it was odd. The formula for Boston's league-leading 20-2 start did not feature Rondo as the dominant player, and there was no way he was going to keep that up. It had no lasting impact. He would have been far more effective establishing an attack that the Celtics could have continued to develop throughout the second half.

But he and his team needed a night like this -- with many more yet to come -- to realize what doesn't work and what does.

"We wanted to make him a scorer, make him finish, make him shoot jumpers, and he did that,'' said Billups, who choked Rondo to no points, two turnovers and two assists in the second half. "It was what we wanted.''

Just as too much should not be made of Boston's first loss at home, it also would be a mistake to give the Celtics too much credit for a 20-2 start that came with little adversity and a favorable schedule absent of title contenders. Was any kind of precedent established by this one game? After all, Billups and potentially Gilbert Arenas and Jason Kidd are the only point guards in the East capable of bullying Rondo in the playoffs.

But the problem in Boston isn't Rondo. On the contrary: He is invaluable as Boston's only point guard, and a potentially dynamic one at that. The real issue is that the Celtics have no backup alternative to Rondo. Maybe if Tony Allen recovers, he can become their Billups stopper; or maybe Ray Allen -- who has covered Kobe Bryant and LeBron James this year -- should be switched over to Billups, and leave Rondo to chase Rip Hamilton around the floor.

But none of that will change the fact that when Rondo isn't in the game, the Celtics encounter significant difficulty bringing the ball up against pressure and getting into their offense. It's going to be hard for them to acquire a complementary veteran backup with size because they dealt so many pieces to acquire Garnett and Ray Allen, and so they have no meaty, short-term contracts in reserve to offer in a midseason trade. Meanwhile, the Pistons await the return of 6-5 rookie Rodney Stuckey, who is expected to support Billups with reliable backup minutes and further enhance Detroit's advantage.

Which in turn lays an ever greater burden on Boston's elder stars to reroute the game away from the occasionally difficult matchup. The Celtics were consoled by the outrageous last-minute threes of Eddie House and Ray Allen that they can homer their way back from any reasonable deficit. But Allen, Garnett and Pierce were also reminded by Detroit that wit and cunning can make the biggest difference of all.

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