AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — When Isaiah Thomas made a 3-pointer midway through the fourth quarter to continue his methodical dissection of the Pistons, one fan in The Palace's lower bowl had seen enough.
"Hey," he yelled, "play defense on that dude!"
Of course, it is easier to make that suggestion while gnawing on a pretzel than it is to actually play defense on that dude. And by that time, it was too late, anyway.
Thomas had already done as he wished against a Detroit defense that had often appeared disinterested. He sometimes reached the basket so easily Wednesday night that it made him wonder why there hadn't been more resistance.
Thomas finished with 34 points and six assists in 30 minutes, leading the Celtics to a 113-103 win. He once again looked like the player who had electrified TD Garden before missing eight games last month with a back bruise.
"We couldn't contain Isaiah Thomas," Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. "We could not keep him out of the paint. We couldn't stop him one-on-one on drives or on pick-and-rolls."
The win provided little clarity in this tight playoff race, but it certainly was big for the Celtics. With four games remaining, they are now tied for seventh with the Nets, and the Celtics would hold the tiebreaker between the teams if the standings finish this way.
But given the countless permutations, there is little chance the standings finish this way. The Celtics understand that the Pacers and Heat are just one game back, and that one bad night could send them from seventh to the lottery. So for now it is simply important that they are in position to leave an imprint.
"It's huge," guard Marcus Smart said. "Another game under our belt during this playoff push, and another game to boost our confidence."
After the game, several players sat on stools in the locker room and asked visitors for score updates from other notable games. The fact that they did not already know speaks to their focus; the fact that they really wanted to know speaks to their excitement.
In this crucial stretch, coach Brad Stevens has kept his players from looking forward or backward. And it was quite clear that this game against the Pistons concerned him.
On March 22, Detroit came to TD Garden and grabbed a 105-97 win. Their monstrous center, Andre Drummond, dominated much of that game. And on Wednesday night, forward Greg Monroe — who missed the last meeting with an injury — was back.
So the Celtics attempted to negate that edge by beating Detroit's big men down the court when they could, and spreading them out when they couldn't.
"The idea was to spread those bigs out and drive [at] them," Stevens said. "Whether it's the guy driving at the bigs as a guard, or the next reversal pass driving, we wanted to keep driving the ball."
Thomas was the obvious conductor. It is a role he relishes, and it rarely unfolds quite as easily as it did Wednesday.
"I don't know what they were messing up on," he said, "but when I got in the teeth of the defense, there were about four or five times when no one's around. That's weird for me."
The Pistons often resorted to fouling, and that worked out well for the Celtics, who made 33 of 34 free-throw attempts. Detroit, meanwhile, converted just 6 of 10.
With 6:03 left in the third quarter, the Celtics' 16-point lead had been whittled to 1, and the Pistons and their mostly apathetic fans were energized. Then Thomas reentered the game.
The Pistons could not keep Thomas in front of them without bumping him, and when he avoided them, he scored. He had 13 points and two assists in that six-minute burst. By the time the quarter ended, the 1-point lead had swelled to 17.
Detroit threatened in the fourth quarter, but Thomas stopped that flurry before it became a concern. He scored 8 points over a 72-second stretch, making it 103-86, and the Pistons had no answer.
Thomas was in such a groove that when he passed the ball in the fourth quarter, he said, his teammates became upset, because they knew Detroit would do all it could to keep him from getting it back.
"He's one of the best pick-and-roll players in our league," Jae Crowder said, "so we've just got to play off of him."
Crowder finished with 17 points and six rebounds for Boston. Monroe and Drummond combined for 41 points and 24 rebounds, and the Pistons shot 53.6 percent from the field, but they were undone by 19 turnovers and the free-throw disparity.
The Celtics visit the Cavaliers on Friday before the teams meet again at TD Garden on Sunday. Cleveland clinched the No. 2 seed in the East on Wednesday night, and coach David Blatt has indicated that he would find some rest for his stars — including LeBron James — in this final week. It is unclear if that will happen against the Celtics, but it certainly would be a boon for them if it does.