Celtics tune out the Jazz
After squandering 18-point lead, they end on high note
The Celtics can’t seem to enjoy success without large and sudden doses of adversity. Eighteen-point leads wither away in a flash and regardless how much the team’s veteran legs could use rest late in games, they simply grind their way to more difficult-than-expected victories.
A 16-6 fourth-quarter run finally quieted the feisty Jazz and led to another Celtics victory, but they walked away from TD Garden Wednesday hoping that games like these eventually will come easier.
The 94-82 victory boosted the Celtics into a first-place tie with the 76ers in the Atlantic Division and increased their mark to 12-5 since the All-Star break as Kevin Garnett again turned back the clock with 23 points and 10 rebounds.
Perhaps a positive result of their recent spurt is a growing ability to grind out wins in games they were losing earlier in the season.
The out-of-shape Celtics dropped games to the Mavericks, Pacers, and Bulls in January in similar style. They entered the fourth quarter tied and fell apart down the stretch. It appears those games may have prepared them to stay poised and respond with defensive intensity.
The Celtics were 9 of 16 shooting in the final quarter compared with 8 of 21 for Utah. Al Jefferson scored 14 points in the third quarter and 2 in the fourth. Garnett again won that matchup, finishing strong with 10 points in the final period.
“The first half of the season wasn’t pleasurable for us,’’ Garnett said. “I thought I could be better and I have been working towards that. I have been giving myself a true analysis in the mirror, looking at myself, telling myself what I can do better. I have been going towards that.’’
Paul Pierce scored 20 points on 6-of-16 shooting and Rajon Rondo contributed 14 assists in 36 minutes. And the defense held Utah to 39-percent shooting and contained the Jazz big men down the stretch.
And what would a Garnett duel be without an altercation in which he raises his arms to claim full innocence? It occurred with 5:58 left and the Celtics leading, 80-71. Keyon Dooling picked up a personal foul on a layup attempt by Alec Burks while Jefferson and Garnett tussled over the rebound. Jefferson finally snapped and pushed Garnett and both were assessed technicals.
Garnett’s recent surge has come at the expense of younger players, victims of his sharpened mid-range game and constant taunts.
“I’m motivated,’’ he said. “I hear y’all calling me old. I hear y’all calling me older, weathered. It don’t take much to motivate me, man. I don’t watch too many of you guys’ interviews, they’re garbage. But the ones I do catch, it’s an opinion and it’s what it is but it puts a spark under me and I like that. Playing against younger talent that’s supposed to be prolific, supposed to be above average, but I’m old though, you know? But for the third time, it doesn’t take much to motivate me.’’
But it didn’t have to be so suspenseful. The Celtics’ lead swelled to 61-43 after a 15-8 run to begin the third period, including consecutive dunks by Brandon Bass and a streaking score from Pierce. The Jazz offered no resistance early in the period and victory was coming easier than expected until an old friend arrived.
After going 1 of 8 in the first half, Jefferson, traded to Minnesota five years ago in the deal that brought Garnett to town, scored 14 points in the period, bringing the Jazz all the way back to 64-60 after his dunk with 2:19 left in the period.
Utah then shook the Garden by scoring the first 5 points of the fourth quarter to even the score at 66, and for the second consecutive game, the Celtics had blown an 18-point lead. They led, 33-15, in Charlotte Monday only to watch the Bobcats to cut the deficit to 2 at halftime.
Yet, that Utah run appeared to ignite a rather enthusiastic midweek crowd.
“Utah came out and kind of erased the lead right away, but we settled down and those guys [the bench] hit some shots and pushed the lead until the starters got back in,’’ Pierce said. “It really made it easy on us for us to close the game once we got back into the game.’’
After 50 games, the Celtics seem to be finally establishing their personality. Garnett is averaging 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 52.9 percent shooting in 18 games since the break. His move to center has sparked his increased offensive production, and he is putting to rest any rumors of his demise.
“Whenever you go through something, you have to be able to look at yourself and give yourself a true perspective and be honest with yourself,’’ he said. “And my level of expectation will always oversee everybody in here, half of y’all have never touched a basketball . . . I can’t ask a teammate to do something and look [at] himself if I am not looking at myself. I’m every bit of the word a true leader, not about the words that come out of my mouth but by example. I have always tried to better myself.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.