About 45 minutes after the Pistons grabbed a convincing 118-108 win over the Celtics on Monday, Avery Bradley walked into Boston’s empty locker room and sought out a few members of the team’s training staff who were packing up to go home. He smiled and gave them hugs before heading out with his own team.
Bradley had just played his first game in Boston as an opposing player after seven years with the Celtics, and his presence remained familiar to so many people here. Before the game, an equipment manager gave him a shirt he had left behind, and then later he received a standing ovation when he was introduced to the TD Garden crowd as a Piston.
Bradley was known for his competitiveness, his work ethic, and his shooting, but most of all, he was known as one of the most relentless on-ball defenders in the NBA.
And this time the Celtics had to deal with the fact that he was not on their side.
Point guard Kyrie Irving, of course, had faced Bradley countless times over the years, including in last year’s conference finals, when Irving played for the Cavaliers. But that made it no more comfortable for Irving, who committed a season-high six turnovers and made 6 of 16 shots.
“We are all aware of [Bradley’s] ability to defend,” Celtics center Al Horford said, “to make people uncomfortable, to change the game.”
It was the second loss in four games, which is hardly notable amid the grind of an NBA season, but seems more relevant now because this 2-2 stretch was preceded by a mammoth 16-game winning streak.
Boston’s defense, which had been elite during the winning streak, has been showing signs of wear recently and was gashed Monday. The Celtics allowed Detroit to shoot 51.8 percent from the field and surrendered 118 points, 10 more than the previous season high. The Pacers are the only other team to shoot 50 percent or better against the Celtics this year, and that happened Saturday, even though it was a Boston win.
The Celtics gave up 98 points or more just four times over their first 16 games, but now six consecutive opponents have reached that mark.
“I think a couple of our recent games we played against teams that have played excellent offense, including tonight, and they put us in a bind in a lot of different ways where we had to pick our poison,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “And, I think our defense wasn’t very good tonight.”
The Pistons mostly scored how they wanted with Tobias Harris slashing to the basket for many of his game-high 31 points on 11 of 16 shooting. And big man Andre Drummond continued to show his refined offensive repertoire, as the Pistons often played through him on the elbows and he finished with 26 points and 22 rebounds.
For the Celtics, the loss wiped away a second consecutive encouraging offensive performance by Marcus Smart, who entered the weekend with the worst field goal percentage in the NBA. He followed Saturday’s 7-for-8 night by going 8 for 13, including 6 of 9 from 3-point range.
Even though his 23-point, 6-assist night came in a loss, it could be an encouraging sign for Boston moving forward.
“It’s all cool and all, but I’d rather have the win,” Smart said. “It would have felt good to have the win.”
The Celtics shot well as a team, making 51.9 percent of their field goal tries, but they were just 12 of 21 from the foul line and committed 17 turnovers and, most of all, their defense was flawed.
At the start of the night, much of the buzz surrounded the return of Bradley. The guard spent the first seven years of his career with the Celtics and was the final remaining bridge from the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett era.
He was a key part of the Celtics’ rebuild over the past few years, as Boston returned to relevancy.
But the team traded him to the Pistons last July to clear the salary-cap space needed to sign Gordon Hayward to a max contract.
On Monday night, Bradley was the last Pistons starter to be introduced. The lights at TD Garden went dark and the Celtics showed a brief tribute video for Bradley, who waved to the crowd as he received a hearty standing ovation.
“It meant a lot to me,” Bradley said. “I appreciate it. In my seven years here, I try to go out there and compete hard and leave everything out on the court for them. For them to show that respect back to me, it means a lot to me. Like I said, this will always be my second home and I love all the fans in Boston.”
Then the game started, and Bradley reminded Boston fans what they were missing. He converted a floater just 16 seconds into the game. Then he added an 18-footer and a strong driving layup, and he helped pester Irving throughout the night.
“He’s one of the best I go against, if not the best,” Irving said. “Just going against Avery in the playoffs and the regular season. You’ve just got to commend a guy like that, to be able to stay in front of you, pressure you one way, and still be able to do it without fouling.”
In the second quarter, with Bradley on the bench, Irving and Daniel Theis found a rhythm with their two-man game, as Irving fed Theis for a layup and a dunk over a 33-second span. That was part of 14-2 run that gave the Celtics a 35-33 lead.
The Celtics’ struggles to contain Harris were evident in the second half, however. His pull-up 3 with 5:26 left stretched the Pistons’ lead to 77-69. It looked like Detroit was going to have a chance to extend its lead when Smart fired a desperation 3 before the shot-clock expired, but the ball caromed off the top of the backboard and through the net, igniting a 9-0 Boston burst. The score was tied at 86 at the start of the fourth quarter.
The Pistons stretched their advantage back to 97-91 before Smart continued his improbable long-range shooting, drilling two more 3s in a 42-second span to put Boston ahead, 100-99.
The Celtics trailed by just 4 points and had the ball with 3:10 left before Drummond stole an inbounds pass and coasted in for a dunk as he was hit by Irving, who collected his fifth foul on the play.
Thirty-four seconds later Drummond scored inside as he was fouled, giving Detroit a 112-103 lead. The Celtics had one last gasp, as Smart hit another 3 and Jayson Tatum converted a layup to pull Boston within 112-108 with 1:29 left, but that is where the run stalled.