BOSTON &

The Boston Celtics think they might be reaping the dividends of a couple of grueling series early in the NBA playoffs.




The Celtics started fast against the sluggish Pistons and won 88-79 on Tuesday night to take a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals against a team that waited six days for the series to begin.




"Whenever you play so many games in the playoffs, you learn a lot about yourselves," said Paul Pierce, who had 22 points against Detroit just two days after scoring 41 in an epic Game 7 victory over the Cavaliers. "We're the only team in the league that (had) played 14 games. So we've learned a lot."




Kevin Garnett had 26 points and nine rebounds to help Boston win its 15th consecutive home game. The Celtics improved to 9-0 in Boston in the playoffs, a record that allowed them to eliminate Atlanta and Cleveland despite failing to win a road game.




"They haven't lost a game; they should be confident," said Pistons point guard Chauncey Billups, who struggled to shake off the rust after missing the last 21/2 games of the previous round with a strained right hamstring. "They have been very good here at home. We are usually a really good team; we didn't have a good game today, but we look forward to Thursday."




Kendrick Perkins had 10 rebounds for Boston and Rajon Rondo scored seven of his 11 points in the fourth quarter, hitting a 3-pointer with 1:47 left in the game after the Pistons cut the deficit to 83-75. Rondo also had seven assists and five steals while outplaying Billups, the MVP of the 2004 NBA finals, in his first game since May 7.




Celtics coach Doc Rivers said he grew tired of being asked how Rondo would handle the matchup.




"I believe in him. I play him. I'm going to keep playing him," Rivers said. "I told him before the game, 'Stop worrying about them. Make them worry about you, too. You're a hell of a basketball player.'"




The Celtics earned home court through the playoffs with a league-best 66-16 regular-season record and rode that advantage to seven-game victories in the first two rounds. But it also left them little time to rest for Detroit, which was idle since finishing off the Orlando Magic in five games on May 13.




"Rest is not an option," Garnett said. "So we don't even think about that."




Billups scored nine points with two assists, two steals and two turnovers. Tayshaun Prince scored 16 points and Antonio McDyess added 14 points and 11 rebounds for the Pistons, who have one more chance to win in Boston on Thursday night before returning to Detroit for Games — and 4.




"This was the perfect game for them to come in and try to steal one," Pierce said. "And we were aware of that."




Detroit missed its first five shots while allowing Boston to take an 8-0 lead on Ray Allen's drive with 8:36 left in the first.




"We just didn't seem to be in a good flow, it might have had something to do with (the layoff). We were just a step slow," Pistons coach Flip Saunders said.




Billups hit a second-chance 3-pointer to end the drought and make it 8-3. But he did not make another field goal &

he had four points and no assists in the first half &

until there was 4:47 left in the game.




Richard Hamilton scored 10 of the Pistons' 17 third-quarter points as the Celtics took a 69-57 lead on Eddie House's 3-pointer with 2 seconds left.




Notes: Allen, who shot only 33 percent in the second-round series against Cleveland, was 3-for-10 from the field. ... The Pistons are 3-3 on the road in the playoffs. ... Hamilton, Detroit's leading scorer in the playoffs, had just three points in the first half and finished with 15. ... New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was at the game, sitting near the Pistons bench. He received a rousing ovation and a chant of "Bel-i-chick!" every time he was shown on the scoreboard. ... Detroit, which set an NBA record with just three turnovers in its series-clinching win last week against Orlando, had three in the first quarter and seven in the third.