The Celtics’ emphasis on bench strength failed to pay off in the opening weeks of the season. But the improved depth was on display in a 98-93 victory over the Jazz Wednesday night.
Rajon Rondo left late in the third quarter with what coach Doc Rivers described as an ankle sprain, but Boston proved it can perform without him as Leandro Barbosa fueled the offense from the point guard position.
Barbosa (16 points) provided a penetrating threat, and the rest of second unit followed his lead, outscoring the Utah bench, 47-25.
“They take pressure off of us,” Celtics captain Paul Pierce said, “because they play extended minutes when they’re playing well. You know, you look up, I played under 30 minutes and I can’t remember the last time that happened. Kevin [Garnett] is under 30. So, when they’re playing well it really takes a lot of pressure off of us, knowing that we don’t have to play heavy minutes and really get tired the late stages of the game.”
Barbosa sparked the Celtics to a 68-60 advantage with three drives and a feed to Brandon Bass in a 1:40 span in the third quarter.
But the Celtics were basically keeping their offense as simple as possible, and the Jazz adjusted.
In the late going, the Celtics relied on another reserve, Jeff Green (16 points), then turned to Pierce (23 points) and Garnett (11) to finish things off.
“Barbosa was terrific,” Celtic coach Doc Rivers said. “I mean, he bailed us out. Not only replacing Rondo; I thought in the first half — I thought our starters started the game out pretty flat, and I thought our second unit with Courtney Lee and Barbosa, Jared [Sullinger], that group gave us a spurt.
“We didn’t run much because [Barbosa] doesn’t know much. But everything was, basically, pick-and-rolls. We told him to just keep attacking to the basket and we’ll figure it out from there.”
Green contributed a tomahawk dunk and a 3-point play, plus two foul shots, in a 3:25 stretch of the final quarter.
Green’s free throw made the score 93-88 with 3:40 remaining. Then, Utah’s Al Jefferson scored 5 successive points in a 1:26 span to tie it.
A Garnett free throw broke the tie with 1:08 remaining. Mo Williams missed a drive after a timeout, and Garnett grabbed the rebound. Pierce’s free throws gave the Celtics a 96-93 edge with 19.5 on the clock.
Paul Millsap was off with a lefthand drive while closely guarded by Green. But Green was called for a travel after rebounding with 12.5 seconds on the clock. Then, Williams clanged a 3-point try out of a timeout, with Garnett rebounding and clinching the result with two free throws.
“They outran us in the first half,” Rivers said. “Second half, we got back. Wasn’t any adjustment. I just told the guys, ‘you know after you score you can’t do your home run jog and wave at everybody. They’re coming right back at you.’
“And I thought we got caught off guard in the first half with that. And the second half we were terrific. They had to score in the half court. Our initial defense was great. They just got a ton of offensive rebounds and fouls.”
Rondo failed to record an assist until midway through the opening half. Then, he found Garnett for a one-hand dunk off a lob for a 34-31 advantage with 6:07 left in the half. Rondo collected his ninth and 10th assists in a 29-second span of the second half, finding Pierce for consecutive 3-pointers and a 60-58 Celtic lead with 5:24 left in the third quarter.
But Rondo departed with 4:55 left in the third after hurting his right ankle on a drive with the score tied, 60-60.
The Celtics (5-3) take a three-game winning streak to Brooklyn Thursday. They have not dominated opponents — the greatest margin of victory has been 6 points — but the team is displaying resilience and a capacity to finish strong.
“We’re getting better,” Pierce said. “Like I said, it’s a process. You play better at home, obviously, and we got a win against a quality team. We know we’ve got to be focused on the road. We’ve been one of the better road teams so far, so that’s not a problem.
“You’ve got to try and gather some momentum before you go out on that road. You know, you put pressure on yourself.
“With the battles here in the Eastern Conference you have to take advantage of the home games, because it’s always tough being on the road. So, hopefully, it can kind of give us some momentum.”