The buzzer sounded, and Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck grabbed the game ball, a memento for Brad Stevens, who had just notched his first win in the NBA.
The rookie Celtics coach needed five games to earn it, let the record show, and, even then, Wednesday’s 97-87 victory over the now 0-5 Utah Jazz nearly slipped away, as other potential Celtics wins had done.
But the Celtics were able to hang on this time, avoiding another embarrassing loss at TD Garden, where last week they choked away a 22-point lead to Milwaukee in their home opener.
“You know, I’m going to celebrate for a whole 12 minutes and then I’m going to start watching Orlando and trying to figure them out,” Stevens said.
It seemed like the Celtics were going to celebrate the win for most of the second half after they jumped to a 25-point lead in the third quarter.
But the Jazz chiseled that advantage down to 6 in the fourth, turning the crowd uneasy, along with the players themselves.
“There was a time in the game when I almost felt like we were going to let them come back again, like we’ve been doing, letting down at the end of the game,” said guard Avery Bradley.
There was no letdown, and they avoided becoming the first Celtics team to open a season with five straight losses since the franchise’s inaugural team in 1946-47.
“Winning’s more fun than losing,” Stevens said afterward with a grin.
And after coming close in previous losses, the Celtics needed Wednesday night’s win to feel like they were at least on track.
“We felt the win, so now you kind of learn how to win and get better,” said Jordan Crawford, who started, scored 7 points, and tied for the team-high with 4 assists.
Added Kelly Olynyk, who had 14 points and eight rebounds off the bench, “It’s big for our team, especially right now. You know, coming off four tough games, to get a win, we have that confidence and hopefully we can ride that and learn from that as a team.”
It didn’t look good for the Celtics early, as the Jazz took a 16-3 lead to start the game.
But Stevens made two key substitutions midway through the first quarter, inserting veteran swingman Gerald Wallace, who didn’t start for the first time this season, and later undrafted rookie free agent point guard Phil Pressey, who made his NBA debut.
The Celtics’ intensity improved, as did their ball movement, and they started to storm back, dominating the second quarter and outscoring the Jazz, 27-8, to take a 50-34 lead into the locker room at halftime.
“To me, the best teams I’ve been a part of have had sparks off the bench,” Stevens said. “The energy level has actually gone up, or at least in a really good night, stayed the same. And I think that that’s what happened.”
The Celtics continued to pour it on after the break, leading by 25 points in the third. But the Celtics were again awful in the final quarter; entering the game they had been outscored by a total of 43 points in the final frame.
The Jazz opened the fourth on a 19-5 run, trimming the Celtics’ lead to 89-83 with 4:29 left.
A key thorn in the Celtics’ side was Jazz forward Gordon Hayward, who played for Stevens at Butler. Hayward scored a game-high 28 points, hitting 12 of 20 shots, and he scored a team-high 8 points in the fourth.
“I wish he would’ve backed off a little at the end,” Stevens said of his former player, half-joking.
But forward Brandon Bass answered with a 14-foot jump shot with 3:56 left that put the Celtics ahead by 6. He later hit another jumper that gave his team a 10-point lead, and he sealed the win with a fast-break slam dunk with 42 seconds to go.
Bass scored 16 of his team-high 20 points in the second half, with 9 coming in the fourth quarter. He was, in a word, clutch.
“Tonight, I was kind of able to put it all together, defensively, offensively,” he said.
Jeff Green, who scored 18 points, said that the Celtics never got down on themselves, even as they lost their first four games.
“We continued to stay positive, because after watching film, we saw the things that we can correct to get to this point, where we can win,” the forward said.
“It was all self-corrections that we had. We learned from our mistakes. We came into tonight knowing that we’re playing a team similar to our position. We just wanted to come out and continue to build off the past few games.”
The Celtics had 22 assists on 40 field goals and turned 22 Utah turnovers into 20 points — the deciding factors in the game.
Wallace was also big with 9 points and nine rebounds off the bench, and Pressey added 2 points and three assists that helped swing momentum in the first half.
But as usual with these Celtics, it came down to the fourth quarter.
“You could tell we were all a little on edge at the end of that game,” Stevens said. “That’s what happens after Friday and that’s why it’s important to try and find a way to win this one.”
The players also said they were happy to get Stevens his first NBA win.
“Hopefully we can get him many more,” Bass said with a smile.Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.