SALT LAKE CITY — Jayson Tatum sought to make superstar plays on a night when he was best served being a decoy. Stifled by Utah’s defense with former Celtics assistant coach Will Hardy, Tatum tried making two plays in the final minute and faltered both times.
The result was a heartbreaking 118-117 loss to the Jazz at Vivint Arena, and dropping them into a tie for second place in the Eastern Conference.
The Celtics led by as many as 19 points in the first half but yielded a stirring 48-22 run and never solved the Jazz’s size all night. Tatum missed a pull-up 3-pointer and a stepback jumper in the final minute. He did not score in the second half and finished with just 15 points on 4-for-12 shooting.
Grant Williams, who hit seven 3-pointers, had a chance to win it but he challenged 7-footer Walker Kessler at the rim in the final seconds and was denied. The Celtics were outscored 5-0 to end the game, going scoreless for the final one minute, 19 seconds.
Again, the Celtics suffered from playing well only in spurts. They roared back after falling down 7 late in the third quarter and led most of the fourth, but the Jazz had an answer for every run. And finally, after Tatum missed his stepback jumper, Talen Horton-Tucker’s layup put Utah ahead with 35.
Tatum then came back with a three attempt that not surprisingly clanged off the rim. He’s struggled from beyond the arc since hitting 10 3-pointers in this very same arena during the All-Star Game.
“I would want no better shot than Jayson Tatum shooting an off-the-dribble, wide-open three,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “I’ll take that 100 times a game. Jayson Tatum shooting a three uncontested is a great shot. I thought we executed as far as 2-for-1 situations very well. I thought it was a great look.”
Tatum missed all four of his shot attempts in the second half and was a minus-13 in his 18 minutes, 36 seconds. Hardy, who coached Tatum for one season, threw traps the entire game. Utah’s size in the paint prevented Tatum from making uncontested drives to the basket.
He finished with six assists but the Celtics were relegated to winning a difficult road game without any offensive contribution from their best player.
“They were doubling me and I was making the right play and we were hitting shots,” Tatum said. “I was just playing the game the right way. They were trying to get the ball out of my hands.”
Tatum’s 12 shot attempts was his lowest since Feb. 8, 2022 against the Brooklyn Nets. Jaylen Brown led the Celtics with 25 points but just 3 in the fourth quarter on two shot attempts.
But the Celtics said they believe they scored enough points to win. The issue, as has been recently, was defensive rebounding and second-chance points. The Jazz grabbed 17 offensive rebounds, leading to 20 second-chance points.
Utah’s mammoth front line of Kessler, former Celtic Kelly Olynyk and Lauri Markkanen combined for 37 rebounds, three fewer than the Celtics entire team. Robert Williams (hamstring) and Al Horford (rest) were unavailable.
“Our physicality waned,” Williams said. “We started playing a little bit more passively and it was a game from then on. We didn’t do a good job of maintaining that same effort and physicality on the defensive and our offense stalled. We were getting all the looks we wanted, we just stopped making shots.”
The Celtics couldn’t manufacture easy points because of Utah’s size and also couldn’t get to the free throw line, attempting just five free throws in the second half.
All of the momentum and equity the Celtics built during a mostly good first half dissipated in the third period when the Jazz went on a 25-11 run and took an 82-75 lead after a Rudy Gay elbow 3-pointer. The Celtics offense struggled, unable to score in the paint because of Utah’s size and also clanging open 3-pointers.
After a timeout with 3:18 left, the Celtics made a statement, however, responding with a 16-3 run with Tatum on the bench. Brown added a couple of layups, Mike Muscala and Malcolm Brogdon added 3-pointers.
Williams hit four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter as the Celtics extended their lead to 111-104 with 4 minutes, 36 seconds left. But they went just 2 for 8 shooting the rest of the way, unable to score in the paint or get to the free throw line.
The Celtics are now 3-2 on their six-game West Coast trip with the two losses coming by a combined 3 points, and on both occasions the Celtics missed the final tying or winning shot. Boston entered Saturday knowing the Philadelphia 76ers won their eighth consecutive game and would grab the No. 2 seed by percentage points if the Celtics lost.
Philadelphia has picked up four games since March 1 as the Celtics ensure one of the more difficult stretches in the season’s final weeks. Mazzulla was not moved by the Celtics clinching a playoff spot with Miami’s loss to the Chicago Bulls.
“No (it means nothing),” he said. “Maybe tomorrow. But no. It’s only one thing we have to accomplish and that’s it. We were competitive. We played hard. It’s not the same as the Houston game. But playing hard isn’t enough. You have to play detailed basketball. You have to execute. You can’t take plays off. You can’t get an 8-second call when you’re trying to get a 2-for-1 situation. You can’t leave shooters open.
“We all have to be better. They have to be better. I have to be better.”
Despite the loss, the Celtics clinched a playoff berth when the Heat lost, 113-99, to the Bulls.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.