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No surprise: Billups in lineup.

Byline: Paul Jarvey

BOSTON - There was really no doubt Chauncey Billups would play.

Sore leg or not, Billups was sure to be the Pistons' starting point guard as the Boston Celtics beat Detroit, 88-79, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.

After missing the last two games of the Pistons' series with the Magic with a strained right hamstring, this wasn't a vintage Billups performance, though.

Was it rust, injury or a combination of both? No one knows for sure, but for whatever reason the Pistons' all-time postseason scoring leader was held to just nine points, five of those coming in the last six minutes when he finally started to get things going.

"I felt good," Billups said. "It was good just being back out there. Obviously, my explosiveness wasn't there."

He admitted that he's not 100 percent, and he may not get there anytime soon.

He doesn't know how far off he is, but said, "I know I'll get better as we go along."

No one is completely healthy at this point in the playoffs anyway. The main thing is to be healthy enough, and Billups insists he is.

He suffered the injury on May 7, four minutes into Game 3 against the Magic. The Pistons won the series without him, but he will need to be in top form if Detroit is to beat the Celtics.

Billups played just 31 minutes and sat out from 2:39 in the third quarter until there were just under six minutes left in the game.

"He hasn't really played in a game in 10 days or so," Pistons coach Flip Saunders said. "I think he wasn't as comfortable coming off screens, looking to shoot it as quick. I thought he was a little better even late. Even though he missed a couple late, he looked more for his shot."

Celtics coach Doc Rivers had a similar assessment.

"I think he's healthy, and I think he's 100 percent," Rivers said. "But when you sit out that many games or that many days in a row without having an exhibition game, and you come back and your first game is a playoff game, that's difficult. He'll keep getting better, we understand that."

Rivers knows that Billups will always be out there if he can.

He played - sort of - under Rivers during the 1999-2000 season. He was traded to Orlando when Rivers coached there. Billups was hurt and never actually played in a game for the Magic before signing with Minnesota after that season.

"He didn't miss a practice, he didn't miss a meeting," Rivers said. "And from that day forward, I had the utmost respect for him because I don't think a lot of guys would have done that. I thought that not only meant a lot to me obviously, but it was really important to our team."

Billups hadn't done much in his career up to that point, but he has become one of the NBA's top guards, both offensively and defensively.

"I never even got to look at him," Rivers said. "But the coaches before that didn't know if he was a point or a two. I think what they found out is he was just a heck of a basketball player and he's a heck of a point guard."

Billups has been averaging 15.8 points a game in this year's playoffs and moved past Joe Dumars last month as No. 1on Detroit's postseason scoring list.

The guy plucked by Rick Pitino with the third pick in the 1997 draft to be the Celtics' point guard of the future is the backbone of the Pistons.

Billups has always been at his best when the games matter most and was just cranking up his game when he got hurt, averaging 21.2 points in the previous five playoff games.

One of the key matchups for both sides in this series is the veteran Billups vs. speedy Rajon Rondo of the Celtics.

Rondo won that battle last night, although it wasn't always a head-to-head contest as Saunders rotated Rip Hamilton and Rodney Stuckey on him along with Billups.

"Rondo has heard all year, not just the Billups matchup, he's heard all year what he can't do and what we can't do with him, and yet we're here because of Rondo," Rivers said.

Billups praised Rondo for his play last night, but he's not conceding anything.

He has a game under his belt now, and he expects to keep getting better.

"I saw a couple of gaps I'll be able to take advantage of," Billups said. "I feel good enough to be a little more aggressive."




CUTLINE: Celtics guard Rajon Rondo dunks over Detroit forward Tayshaun Prince during the first half of Game 1.
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:May 21, 2008
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