SALT LAKE CITY — On the first possession of the Celtics’ game against the Jazz on Friday, Utah forward Royce O’Neal fumbled the ball as he tried to pitch it to Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell calmly grabbed it and found himself standing on the logo near the right arc, more than 30 feet from the hoop.
He had some time to salvage the play with a strong drive, or even another pass. Instead, the star guard hoisted a deep 3-pointer that slid through the net. And that moment turned out to be a harbinger.
Before the game, Celtics coach Ime Udoka made it clear he was wary of the Jazz’s unrelenting reliance on outside shooting, but he probably never imagined the night unfolding quite like this.
Utah pummeled the Celtics with a barrage of long-range darts, connecting on 27 of 51 3-pointers in its 137-130 win that started Boston’s five-game road trip on a sour note. Previously, no Celtics opponent had ever made more than 23 3-pointers in a game. The Jazz were just two short of tying the single-game NBA record.
“Tonight was just one of those nights that I’ve never been a part of, a team hitting that many threes like that,” Celtics forward Al Horford said. “And especially the type of threes —they weren’t necessarily all open. They were tough, contested threes.”
Mike Conley Jr., who came into the night averaging 2.5 3-pointers per game, was especially destructive, going a perfect 7 for 7 from beyond the arc. The Celtics insisted that they’d mostly defended Utah’s shooters rather well, even if the results didn’t necessarily back that up.
But Udoka said the trouble started with that imperfect opening quarter in which the Jazz drilled five 3-pointers in the first five minutes.
“The first quarter, I don’t feel we defended well,” Udoka said. “They hit a ton of tough shots late over really good contests, but by letting them get confidence and get going early, they hurt us later down the stretch. Obviously to get up 51 [attempts] and make 27, it’s going to be hard to win any night.”
For the Celtics, one of the most frustrating aspects of this loss was that it came on a night that their offense, which has generally been sleepy this season, truly ignited. Boston scored 74 points in the second half and was 22 for 22 from the foul line and made 51.2 percent of its shots overall. In the end, the reward for that performance was another loss that pushed the team further into Eastern Conference purgatory.
“It’s tough,” forward Jayson Tatum said. “We had some guys that made some shots, but they didn’t miss any shots, either.”
Tatum had 37 points to lead Boston. Dennis Schroder scored 26 points and Horford added 21 points, 9 assists, and 6 rebounds. Jaylen Brown sat out due to soreness related to the hamstring strain that recently sidelined him for eight games.
Mitchell scored 34 points for Utah and Conley Jr. finished with 29.
Despite Utah’s outside onslaught, the Celtics fought back from an early 14-point deficit and were mostly in the game until the end, in large part because of their crisp shooting and because they scored 31 points off of 20 Jazz turnovers.
Afterward, the players sounded hopeful that perhaps their powerful offensive finish could kick-start a more sustained surge during this challenging trip.
“Obviously, we want to win the game, but offensively we can look at it and take some positives from it,” Horford said, “because (that was) probably our best offensive game this year.”
The Celtics trailed, 109-104, before Marcus Smart hit a tough, contested 3-pointer from the right corner just before the shot clock expired to ignite a 9-0 Celtics run. The Jazz were held scoreless for more than three minutes before they surged back behind Mitchell, who converted a three-point play, a 3-pointer, and a driving layup during a stretch of just 70 seconds, putting Utah back in front, 124-120, with 2:33 left.
The Celtics stayed close, but Conley ensured they would not get too close, as he drilled two more 3-pointers over the game’s final two minutes. Then, with the Jazz leading by 3, Mitchell hit his team’s final, emphatic long-range dagger with 27 seconds to play.
“I felt that we were there [on defense],” Horford said. “There were some that were mistakes. We helped off them when we didn’t need to. We gave them looks. But I definitely feel there were some really, really tough ones, we were there, we contested them. And you’ve got to shake their hand and give them credit.