The Celtics crafted their nine-game winning streak with some impressive victories over some impressive teams. And when they returned home for Wednesday’s game against the Pistons, their last before the All-Star break, extending the run to 10 became an afterthought.
The Celtics had dismantled the 76ers by 48 points one night earlier. The Pistons had won just four road games all season. They didn’t figure to offer much resistance, especially if the Celtics pounced on them the way they had pounced on so many others during this dominant stretch.
But the Pistons did not come to TD Garden and simply take a seat. Instead, they rallied from an 8-point deficit in the final four minutes and held on for a surprising 112-111 win after Jayson Tatum’s potential game-winner caromed off the rim at the buzzer.
The Celtics could have entered the break with a 10-game win streak. Now, they enter it with a thud. It is not cause for alarm, especially considering the recent portfolio, but it did make the team feel pretty crummy.
“Going to leave a sour taste, for sure,” coach Ime Udoka said. “Kind of look back and reflect on the things we did well over the streak. Didn’t do it tonight.”
Ultimately, it is just one misstep that followed a string of near-perfect play. Duds happen sometimes. But the timing is certainly not ideal for the Celtics, who won’t have a chance to bounce back until they face the Nets next Thursday.
This result aside, however, forward Al Horford said that this team goes to the break with renewed confidence and, more importantly, a blueprint for success.
“I felt like we established a little bit of an identity of how we want to play on the defensive end, setting the tone defensively,” Horford said. “Then playing faster on offense and getting some good ball movement.”
For one night, this elite defense took a step back. The Pistons made 53.3 percent of their 3-pointers, grabbed 18 offensive rebounds, and held a 17-2 edge in second-chance points. Detroit became just the second Boston opponent since Dec. 26 to score at least 112 points.
“They were going to try to make it a physical game,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said, “and they did.”
Brown had 31 points to lead the Celtics, who lost despite making 54.5 percent of their shots. They had been 14-1 this season when shooting 48.9 percent or better. Tatum added 22 points, but he committed seven turnovers and missed the shot that could have reshaped the night’s narrative.
Pistons rookie Cade Cunningham, who did not play when these teams met in Detroit earlier this month, had 20 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists.
The Celtics were without two of their best defenders in guard Marcus Smart (ankle) and Robert Williams (calf), and that certainly didn’t help. Still, they had enough manpower and opportunity to push aside a 12-win opponent.
The Celtics’ winning streak was filled with wire-to-wire victories and scores so lopsided it was sometimes hard to believe they were facing other NBA teams. But the Pistons were plucky. Every minor run by Boston was answered with a big 3-pointer or putback. Neither team ever held a double-digit advantage.
The Pistons took a 92-86 lead on a 3-pointer by former Boston big man Kelly Olynyk with 9:44 left. Late Celtics comebacks are usually sparked by Tatum and Brown, but in this case Grant Williams connected on a pair of 3-pointers and Aaron Nesmith soared for a putback, igniting a 13-0 run that flipped the 6-point deficit into a 99-92 edge.
“We talked about with about eight minutes to go that if we tighten up and build a lead, we thought we were going to be in a good position, and we did that,” Horford said. “Then, we just couldn’t finish it.”
The Celtics led by 8 points with less than four minutes left and appeared in control, but the Pistons pushed back with a 12-2 flurry that was capped by a Saddiq Bey putback that gave the Pistons a 110-108 lead with 42.8 seconds left.
Horford, who has struggled from beyond the 3-point arc this season, calmly drilled one from the right arc to put Boston back in front with 32.3 seconds to play, before Jerami Grant answered by spinning through the lane for a 10-footer with 19.1 seconds left.
At the other end, Cunningham swatted away Brown’s attempt and Detroit gathered the loose ball and called a timeout. But Derrick White stole the ensuing inbounds pass, and the Celtics called a timeout with 6.9 seconds remaining.
Tatum, who struggled for much of the night, sized up Grant at the top of the key, but his 20-footer was off. Udoka said he was hopeful that Tatum would attack the rim on the final play. But he also wanted to get up a shot before the buzzer to present an opportunity for an offensive rebound, and his look was clean.
“We got the ball in Jayson’s hands, which is where we wanted it,” Horford said, “with a shot I’ll give to him every time in that position to make that play. It just didn’t go down tonight.”