SALT LAKE CITY — It’s nights like these that resuscitate that dissipating faith in the rebuilt Celtics. About 24 hours after one of the more disappointing losses of the season, watching Wesley Matthews single-handedly beat them on one leg to snap a seven-game Portland losing streak, the Celtics respond with this.
Ending a laborious road trip to the West Coast in perhaps the toughest place to play in the league, the Celtics were able to withstand the pressure and eke out a 110-107 win at EnergySolutions Arena against the Utah Jazz Monday night.
The Jazz already had beaten Oklahoma City, Indiana, Golden State, Miami, and San Antonio here and yet, the weary Celtics, behind a less-than-kempt Paul Pierce, salvaged their biggest victory of the season.
Doc Rivers called the ugly 71-69 win over the Chicago Bulls to end the season’s first half one of the more important wins, but this one exceeded that in significance. The Celtics would have crawled home 1-4 on the trip with a loss and with three days to think about their inability to finish games on the road.
Against the Trail Blazers they were outscored, 6-0, in the final 1:46, seemingly succumbing to a team that wanted victory more. The same can’t be said about Monday, when the Celtics could have folded when trailing by 7 points 2:35 into the third quarter or again when the Jazz went on a 17-2 run for an 85-82 lead with 8:41 left after a Gordon Hayward fast-break dunk.
But the game’s key moment occurred after that basket. Rivers called a timeout and like a parent at the mall, he didn’t wait to get home to scream at his children. He accosted the players while their walked off the court for their defensive passivity because Hayward’s basket came after Enes Kanter scored on an uncontested dunk.
And like a parent, Rivers was not going let his players show out in public, regardless of fatigue or frustration. And after that play, the Celtics righted themselves and began bottling up Hayward, the former Butler star who was the Jazz’s primary offensive weapon Monday.
After allowing Matthews and Nicolas Batum to thrive while LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard were mostly contained the night before, the Celtics shifted their defensive focus to Hayward and away from former Celtic Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap and it worked.
Hayward, who drew the raves of Rivers before the game, was 3-for-9 shooting for 13 points after halftime as the Jazz shot just 37.8 percent and their starters converted just six field goals. With every excuse to say they fought the good fight and decay under the intensity, the Celtics responded with defensive stops and the brilliance of Pierce, who scored 7 of Boston’s 13 points in overtime.
Pierce put the Celtics ahead for good, 102-101, on a clutch 3-pointer with 2:35 left in OT after DeMarre Carroll helped Utah forge ahead with a jumper. Pierce then hit two more jumpers, including one after Carroll, his victim on Monday, reached out and pulled down his shorts about 6 inches.
Looking haggard but caring less, Pierce helped polish off the Jazz with his vintage late-game heroics. Celtics fans don’t see this Pierce as much as they used to, so it’s a moment to be savored.
“This was one of them desperation-type games that we needed,” Pierce said. “We felt like we let one go away in Portland. This was sort of like a must-win for us. We wanted to win in regulation. It would have felt better just to get a stop when we needed it. That’s what we have to get better at it. When we get the lead, when we need crucial stops, we have to figure out how to get them.”
The season is like a book filled with chapters and the Celtics’ wild inconsistency has kept the readers entertained, if nothing else. But with the absence of Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger, the Celtics have played harder because they’ve had to. They’ve had to offset their lack of talent with more passion and better execution.
Some nights it has failed, as the Celtics have reverted to old habits, while others it has been a rousing success. Rivers doesn’t usually place so much emphasis on individual games but he has this season, especially with Rondo out. The Celtics are a team that sometimes lacks confidence — not unexpected because of the number of season-ending injuries — so he was heartened by Monday’s win, knowing the long flight back to Boston would be jovial and enjoyable, which would not have been the case had they lost again.
“We got a lot of heart; it says a lot of good things,” Rivers said. “This is just a gut-check win for us. We were on fumes and hung in there, hung in there and stole it at the end. It says a lot about this group.
“It was great in the [locker room]. The guys were so excited. It was really good. Listen, when you win a game here, when you can come in here and win a game, that’s real nice.”