DETROIT — With two starters and a key reserve out, the Celtics believed they needed more than a heroic effort from MVP candidate Jayson Tatum to survive the pesky and desperate Detroit Pistons.
Turns out they didn’t.
Tatum put on a modern-day Motown Revue, thrilling the Detroit fans with an array of contested 3-pointers and acrobatic layups, wowing the crowd, talking trash to former Celtics assistant Jerome Allen, and leading his team to a sixth consecutive victory.
Tatum dropped 43 points on the Pistons, leading a second-half charge that helped the Celtics prevail, 117-108, at Little Caesars Arena.
With Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, and Malcolm Brogdon out with injuries, Tatum and his cohorts had enough against a Detroit team determined to steal a victory.
“I just tried to turn it into another gear,” Tatum said. “First half was kind of back and forth and that’s what we talked about in the second half. We both played (Friday), some things that we can clean up in the second half, we need to play better and stop trading buckets and figure out a way to win.”
Tatum has averaged 36.7 points his past four games on 47-for-94 shooting. He made 7 of 15 3-point attempts Saturday, most under duress. Allen, now a Pistons assistant, was screaming for his defenders to chase Tatum as he swished a 3-pointer in front of the Detroit bench. Tatum turned toward Allen and responded with trash talk.
“This is definitely the best I’ve felt to ever start a season,” Tatum said. “It kind of felt like how I was playing toward the end of the last season, when we really went on that run. It feels great to start a season like this because I definitely know what it feels like to be on the other side.”
During practices and shootarounds, Tatum repeatedly shoots 3s with coaches leaping at him to contest, screaming to attempt to break his concentration.
“I’m smart enough to know I’m not going to get many wide-open looks, so I might as well practice that, implement it in my workouts,” he said. “I do it all the time with the coaches, make it game-like so it’s not new.”
Grant Williams helped with 19 points and Marcus Smart, who made a series of bizarre and also brilliant plays, added 18 and 10 assists as the Celtics beat the Pistons for the second time in four nights.
“First of all, it’s their team,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said of the players. “If you want to get to where you want to get to, it has to be a player-led team. They all came together and understood what was needed to win the game. I thought they did a great job of that. It started with Smart at both ends of the floor and Jayson. The entire team took ownership of the game.”
Bojan Bogdanovic scored 28 points and rookie Jaden Ivey added a career-high 26 for the Pistons, who appeared fatigued late in the fourth quarter. Defensively, Detroit had no answer for Tatum, who scored 28 points in the second half.
With his teammates struggling to score, Tatum put his guys on his broad shoulders, carrying the scoring load in the third quarter as the Celtics valiantly tried to avoid the upset. Tatum scored 15 points in the third, including a pair of contested 3s that gave Boston a 76-74 lead.
Ivey got into a one-on-one match with his more established counterpart and matched Tatum bucket for bucket until that late third period flurry.
Tatum led a 19-7 period-ending run for an 89-81 lead. Williams ended the quarter with a 3-pointer just moments after getting kneed in the groin area on a Marvin Bagley drive. Derrick White briefly left the game after taking a hand to the face from Bagley.
It was a physical game.
The Pistons stayed close with the 3-pointer, making 16 of 38 attempts, but they shot just 41.6 percent overall as the Celtics defense continues its ascension.
The game was going to be a challenge before the Celtics even boarded their flight, as Brogdon and Horford were left behind in Boston to nurse injuries. Then, an hour before the game, Brown, the team’s second-leading scorer, was scratched with a left knee contusion after bumping knees in Friday’s win over Denver.
The Celtics suited up 10 players and Mazzulla played all but Justin Jackson in the first half. The result was understandably choppy on the offensive end.
Tatum had his first-half moments but also missed open looks. Smart attempted six 3-pointers in 21 first-half minutes and made just two. He also tried throwing an alley-oop off the backboard to a trailing Tatum, who bobbled the ball and was forced to throw it back to Smart, who then launched an ill-advised, rushed 3-pointer.
A few moments later, Smart was called for a transition take foul. But the Smart Experience continued as he hit a couple of key 3s and made a stellar save before touching the end line, whipping the ball behind his back to Tatum, who threw an alley-oop to Williams.
“It was chaotic, it was hectic, and I strive in those moments, or try to at least,” Smart said. “It was a good night. We were very shorthanded but we had a lot of guys step up. This was a great team effort, but these types of games I have to put my paw print on and we did that tonight.”
With Horford out, Mazzulla opted to give Blake Griffin his first start as a Celtic and he managed 7 points and 6 rebounds in 22 minutes, and was booed each time he touched the ball against his former team. Griffin made an All-Star team in 2019 with the Pistons but asked for his release when the team began a major rebuild.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.