- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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The Celtics are hoping it's mostly the latter. The Pistons have come and gone and won't return until Feb. 15. Pierce, meanwhile, appeared Friday in his first game of the season after a bone bruise in his heel left him stuck on the sidelines while his team was mired in the muck of an 0-3 start.
Pierce's return coincided with Win No. 1 over a Detroit team that has given new meaning to the old nickname "Bad Boys."
Former Celtics assistant Lawrence Frank's new team is indeed, well, bad. But it also is young and excited about the possibilities former Georgetown big man Greg Monroe and No. 8 draft pick Brandon Knight might represent ... someday.
The Celtics have no time and no patience for "someday." Pierce is acutely aware how loudly (and quickly) the clock is ticking, and he strode into the Garden on Friday night grasping the urgency of posting the first victory of this young, abbreviated and maddeningly cluttered lockout-shortened season.
His more obvious contributions were on the offensive end (they usually are), yet it was the captain's defensive mojo that his opponents noted in the wake of a 96-85 Celtics shellacking that was not nearly as close as the score might indicate.
"Paul's very good at luring you into making a move you don't want to make," Detroit veteran Tayshaun Prince said. "We play together sometimes in the summer, so he knows my tendencies. He knows what I want to do and how to take it away.
"So now Paul is on you trying to make you uncomfortable, and you've got [Kevin Garnett] behind him saying, 'I've got your back, Paul. Bring him this way.' That means you've got one defender on you and another back there just waiting to mess you up."
In the first three outings, during which Pierce was in street clothes, you can be sure KG wasn't hollering the same things to Sasha Pavlovic or Marquis Daniels. The Celtics not only lost those games, they slid near the bottom of most of the league's defensive categories. There's an acquired history that Boston's Big Four have come by honestly. They feed off each other's confidence, a symbiotic relationship that had previously made them one of the more intimidating defensive units in the league.
Although they still gave up too many easy baskets in the paint, there were encouraging signs of defensive life against Detroit. The help defense returned, with new energy and commitment.
"When I'm out there, we're a little more familiar with each other. ... There's a little more defensive chemistry," Pierce said.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers took his old friend Frank to dinner Thursday night and assured him Pierce wasn't healthy enough to be in the lineup. After all, he'd practiced only once all season.
Frank knew better than to bank on that. And when he saw No. 34 in the starting lineup, he warned his players they were in for a long night.
"The beauty of that team," Frank said wistfully, "is everyone does their part. There's never just one guy going for 35 [points]."
There were more glamorous moments than others in which Pierce imposed his will on this game, like the 3-point bomb from the left corner a minute into the third quarter that pushed Boston's lead to 13 (56-43) and prompted the Celtics captain to direct a little smack toward the visitors bench.
"Someone said something to me," Pierce said, grinning. "I like to get into a little talking. It makes me feel at home."
He sunk another trey from the right wing less than three minutes later on a long, high bounce pass from Garnett, who had gathered in a beautiful feed from Rajon Rondo.
"At times," Detroit forward Austin Daye said, "their ball movement was flawless."
That was in stark contrast to the multiple possessions against New Orleans two nights earlier when Boston repeatedly lapsed into one of those stagnant, "What the heck do we do now?" possessions with the shot clock whittling down to nothing.
When Pierce is around, there's no hesitation. For better or for worse, he's going to make a forceful decision -- and usually, that means shooting the ball.
"He changes everything," Prince said. "When you have both Ray [Allen] and Paul out there, and you know either one can score, it makes it hard to help on Rondo's penetration, or when KG is in the post. You have to pick and choose, and none of the choices are good."
Pierce logged a shade less than 23 minutes, submitting 12 points (on 4-of-8 shooting), five assists, four rebounds and just one turnover. Predictably, he appeared winded at times, yet he moved well with and without the ball. Asked what his expectations had been coming into the game, he answered, "I was expecting to be me."
In fact, Pierce appeared downright perturbed when Rivers pulled him after 6 1/2 minutes of game action. That move was not related to his injury, he said, but more his stamina.
"I was having so much fun out there [I didn't want to come out]," Pierce said.
There's no question Pierce is not in top game shape yet, and with four games in the next seven days, he'll have to acquire that stamina on the fly. There's also the question of how that heel will feel when Pierce wakes up Saturday morming. Yet no one was worrying about that after the elusive Win No. 1 was finally in the books.
Instead, the Celtics' newcomers were bowing to the guy who has been here from the beginning -- and acts like it.
"Paul is a difference-maker," Keyon Dooling said. "He's kind of an anchor. He goes out there with a moxie and a swagger that was missing the first three games."
The swagger is back. The moxie, too. "The Truth" has returned, and only time will tell whether his presence -- or that of the woeful Pistons -- has set the Boston Celtics on the road to recovery.
Longtime Boston journalist Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
17hMatt Walks, ESPN.com