The Celtics returned home Sunday night after 16 days on the road, and the surroundings were a little unfamiliar, especially with three players who were around the last time they played at home unavailable.
On that 16-day sojourn, the Celtics lost Chris Wilcox for the season, and Mickael Pietrus and Ray Allen weren’t at TD Garden either for the matchup with the Wizards. On a night when the Celtics desperately needed scoring punch from an unexpected source, they got it.
Avery Bradley scored 15 points in the first quarter as the Celtics took an early lead and then spent the rest of the evening staving off Washington rallies for an 88-76 win. The Celtics responded after Friday night’s demoralizing loss at Philadelphia, in which Pietrus frighteningly exited on a stretcher because of a concussion.
Allen missed his second consecutive game with a sore right ankle and won’t play Monday night in Charlotte, either. That allowed Bradley the opportunity to flourish against the questionable defense of the Wizards’ Jordan Crawford.
Bradley’s early success helped give the Celtics a 27-12 lead after one quarter and they would never trail.
Washington missed 22 of its first 25 shots and the Wizards looked anxious for late April, when they finish their basketball obligations. They played with only a mild interest, and while the Celtics couldn’t match their 63.2-percent shooting in the first quarter, they didn’t need to. They merely held on for the final three quarters.
The Celtics spent less than a day at their home arena, though. They hurried to catch a late Sunday flight to Charlotte for a game against the league-worst Bobcats.
“We told them we are not at home, we are on the road still,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “The road trip ends after the next game, the way we look at it. But yeah, I was more concerned obviously coming home, but then when we got the lead I was concerned about how we approach that. Overall we were pretty good.’’
Paul Pierce scored 21 points, all in the final three quarters, and Rajon Rondo, who attempted just five shots, finished with 4 points, 11 assists, 4 rebounds, and 6 turnovers in one of his erratic performances.
The good news was that Washington didn’t do much in the final three quarters, especially once-budding superstar John Wall, who finished with 12 points on 5-for-17 shooting with 9 assists and 3 turnovers.
Three years ago, Bradley and Wall were considered the two best high school point guards in the country. Wall committed to Kentucky and Bradley to Texas after playing well as teammates in the Hoop Summit in 2009.
While Wall enjoyed an impressive rookie season and Bradley barely played because of inexperience and ankle surgery, comparing the two no longer seems like such a mismatch. The Celtics needed offensive punch with their top two perimeter shooters unavailable and Bradley provided that with his impeccable first quarter.
“I’m feeling more confident out there,’’ said Bradley, who scored in double figures for the seventh time this season. “My teammates make me feel more confident, more comfortable, so then I am knocking down more shots.
“It’s all about confidence. Sometimes I will go into the game being hesitant about shooting. Now if I go into the game if I’m open, I’m open. I’ve been shooting and I’ve been making.’’
The Celtics desperately needed his energy because some of his teammates were tired or lagging during the team’s third game in four nights. Rondo continuously targeted Bradley in the early going on back-door cuts and sometimes was too unselfish in passing up open layups.
Pierce was 3 for 8 with 8 points in the first 24 minutes as the Celtics led, 53-34. Washington began the second half on a 13-2 run to reduce the deficit to 55-47, but the Celtics countered with a 10-0 run with Pierce scoring 6 of those points to re-assume control.
With Philadelphia losing at San Antonio, the Celtics found themselves once again one-half game behind the 76ers for first place in the Atlantic Division with three winnable games - Charlotte, Utah, and Minnesota - before next Sunday’s showdown with the Heat.
The Celtics were relieved Sunday that Bradley was able to carry them in stretches. While the fans appeared excited in the early going that the team was back at the Garden, it was eerily quiet during the second half, the fans waiting for some semblance of excitement from the home team. What they received was a gritty performance that proved satisfactory against a team that is playing out the string.
“I was actually kind of tired to start the game,’’ Pierce said. “You know, usually that first game is a rough one, but you just try to get your body back adjusted to the time zone, to our home court.
“When you haven’t played on this court in two weeks, it feels like an away game. But our crowd did a good job of keeping us in it, and we got off to a great start.
“This is definitely a game we were supposed to win. The Wizards are in a rebuilding phase, they traded away a lot of their players, but it’s just nice to get a win, especially coming off a tough loss and losing Mickael Pietrus.’’Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.