DETROIT — The Detroit Pistons weren’t going to allow Jayson Tatum to continue his highlight show in the fourth quarter.
Tatum dazzled the fans at Little Caesars Arena with a third-quarter scoring barrage and he stepped onto the floor with just under eight minutes left and the Celtics clinging to a 7-point lead.
The decision to blitz Tatum was made easier by the absence of Jaylen Brown, who missed Monday’s game with a non-COVID illness. If the Celtics were going to pull out a needed win and save face after building a 23-point lead, it was going to be up his supporting cast.
And that supporting cast responded. With Tatum mostly a decoy, Derrick White knocked down two critical baskets after a 7-point surge from Robert Williams, as the Celtics avoided a complete breakdown by fighting off the valiant but flawed Pistons, 111-99.
Tatum finished with 34 points, including an 18-point third quarter, but he converted just one field goal in the final period. Tatum countered the Pistons’ trap by moving the ball, granting his teammates premium scoring opportunities. White, who has been more aggressive offensively in the past few weeks, scored 23 points, his seventh consecutive game in double figures.
His two buckets gave the Celtics a 105-93 lead with 3 minutes, 18 seconds left and there was a collective sigh of relief for a team coming off Friday’s disappointing home loss to the Suns.
“I feel like there was a stretch where I went through a lull of low energy,” White said. “I just wanted to come out with the energy from the beginning to end. I’m just playing better because of that, just having that right mindset. They’re putting two on JT, that means we’ve got to [have an] advantage somewhere, just got to make the right play after that.”
Tatum finished with three assists in the fourth quarter and a couple of pep talks for Williams and White. He told Williams to “dunk the [expletive] ball” when the big man passed up some opportunities in the paint. Tatum also implored White to shoot from deeps when he swings the ball from a double team.
“I told Rob, he might be the most pass-first guy I’ve ever played with,” Tatum said. “A lot of times when I get doubled so high and I throw it to him over the top and he’s rolling, I tell him, ‘Rob, if you took one dribble, you would go dunk it.’ But sometimes he’s just so quick [to pass]. I tell him all the time: go be aggressive, go score.”
Williams said he is trying to heed Tatum’s words. But not entirely.
“I like to dunk,” Williams said, “but I love to pass.”
Williams lifted the Celtics in the second half with 11 points and nine rebounds in 14 minutes. He scored 7 consecutive points midway through the fourth to help secure the lead at 100-91 after the Celtics yielded a 24-7 run to shrink their lead to 6.
Tatum scored 18 of Boston’s final 25 points in the third period as it grabbed an 88-65 lead. The Detroit crowd marveled at Tatum’s array of jumpers and acrobatic layups, and it appeared he would get an opportunity to watch the fourth quarter from the bench before the Pistons started the fourth on a 14-3 surge.
“I thought we had some turnovers and got lackadaisical with the ball,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “But because of how Detroit plays I think for 95 percent of the game, we managed it to where they couldn’t get those momentum plays that they make.”
The Pistons, (14-41) who now find themselves deep in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes, looked frazzled in the game’s final possessions as the Celtics sealed the game with strong defense, anchored by Williams and Al Horford.
Despite Brown’s absence, five Celtics scored in double figures, including Sam Hauser, who helped build a first-half lead with five 3-pointers. With Marcus Smart also missing his seventh consecutive game with a sprained ankle, Hauser played 31, his second-most this season.
Hauser has struggled most of the past two months and hadn’t made as many as five threes in a game since Nov. 16 in Atlanta.
“It was definitely a cool experience,” Hauser said of starting. “I don’t know if it will happen again or not but I’m glad that it happened. It’s always good to see the first one go down, I think the rim gets a little bit bigger.”
Hauser and White helped the Celtics jump out to an early second-quarter lead they would never relinquish. Tatum, coming off a 3 for 15 outing Friday, missed 10 of his 13 shots in the first half as Boston held on to a 60-53 lead.
Tatum then took over in the third, despite the constant and sometimes helpless pleas for defense from Detroit coach Dwane Casey and assistant Jerome Allen, a former Celtics assistant who remains close to Tatum.
“You know at some point that he’s going to play like a superstar,” Casey said of Tatum. “That’s why they have one of the best records in the league. I watched those guys grow. They had the same growing pains as our young players did. To see where they are now should be motivation for our young players to keep working, stay together and stay the course.”