SALT LAKE CITY -- The Celtics proved they are still learning how to deal with prosperity, nearly melting down after a sparking first-half performance on the second game of a back-to-back in the longest road trip of the season.
A 25-point lead was whittled down to four and these young Celtics, with some veterans mixed in, looked overwhelmed in the moment. Behind the play of carpetbagger Tayshaun Prince, some key defensive stops and Marcus Smart’s relentless hustle, the Celtics held on to a rewarding 99-90 victory over the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena.
The Celtics are now 3-2 on their six-game road trip with the final game coming Wednesday against 7-37 Minnesota. Prince, acquired for his expiring contract from the Memphis Grizzlies, scored 19 points on 7-for-10 shooting with five assists and two rebounds in 30 minutes.
Smart, who missed Sunday’s loss at Golden State because of a death in the family, came back with nine points and five assists in 30 minutes. He helped secure the win by hustling behind Avery Bradley on a breakaway layup. Bradley’s shot was blocked, but Smart scooped up the bouncing ball for a dunk for a 93-84 lead with 47.7 left.
Brad Stevens walked away Monday feeling proud that his team responded from adversity that would have wilted it a few weeks ago.
“The only thing we talked about is, don’t use any excuses,” Stevens said. “Everybody’s got a tough schedule at times during the year. Everybody flies all over the place. Don’t use any excuse, just go out and try to play well.”
Utah looked listless in the first half but cut the Celtics 55-31 lead to 60-56 behind Gordon Hayward and Trey Burke. Yet, in the fourth quarter the Jazz were 8-for-23 shooting with five turnovers and couldn’t respond after the Celtics opened the period with an 8-0 run.
Marcus Thornton sparked the surge with a jumper, two free throws and a no-look bullet pass to Tyler Zeller for a layup and 79-66 lead and order was restored.
“This is one of those games, where everybody needs to have something because we’re all not going to have it all,” Stevens said. “Everybody is going to have to add their piece of the puzzle.”
Stevens has said several times this season that it’s much more difficult playing with a 20-plus point lead than trailing by 20, and he proved right. The Celtics looked disheveled and lethargic entering the third quarter with a 24-point lead and the Jazz were energized.
Utah hit the Celtics with a 25-5 run to begin the period, slicing the Boston lead to 60-56 after a transition 3-pointer from Burke (18 points) with 3:50 left in the period. Prince stopped the run with two free throws, snapping a 5:23 scoreless skid.
The Celtics then appeared to gather themselves towards the end of the quarter and matched baskets with the Jazz. Thornton drained a 3-pointer with 8.9 seconds left for an 8-point lead but Hayward completed his 13-point quarter with a 3-ball to slice the deficit to 71-66.
Boston was 6-for-19 shooting in the quarter with six turnovers, a stark contrast from its brilliant offensive first half.
“I came into halftime and I told the guys this game is by far from being over,” Prince said. “We came in the third quarter and got real slow with our ball movement. We got a little bit satisfied with our lead. We just pass the ball one time and shoot. So when I got in there, I was telling the guys we’re going to have to move the ball more, take better shots.”
The Celtics blitzed Utah for one of their best defensive quarters of the season, holding the Jazz to 5-for-17 second-quarter shooting with six turnovers with a clinic on aggression. Smart was trapping. Jared Sullinger was denying entry passes. Bradley was chasing Burke around screens and Zeller was grabbing rebounds.
The final result was a 38-14 quarter in which the Celtics looked as fluid as they have all season. The offensive catalyst was Prince, who is unsure how much longer he’ll be in Boston. Prince played nearly a perfect quarter, scoring 10 of his 12 first-half points on 4-for-6 shooting with three assists and two 3-pointers.
After an Enes Kanter putback at the 9:41 mark tied the game at 21, the Celtics went on a 23-5 run, keyed by a 3-pointers from Smart, Prince (2) Bradley, and Sullinger.
The run silenced the usually raucous crowd at EnergySolutions Arena. The Celtics defense was so tough on Hayward, a former Stevens pupil at Butler, that he breathed a sigh of relief after hitting the second of two free throws late in the first half. He was 2-for-7 shooting with six points.
The Jazz entered Monday tied for ninth in the NBA in offensive rebounding and Stevens made defensive rebounding an emphasis. The Celtics yielded just 14 second-chance points, despite the presence of 7-feet, 2-inch second-year player Rudy Gobert, who altered his share of shots in his 26 minutes, blocking three.
Boston avoided that roadblock better in the second half, especially the fourth quarter when the Celtics reasserted themselves for another impressive road win.
“I think we’re more mentally tough than we were at the beginning of the year,” guard Evan Turner said. “I think we made a lot of leaps and bounds in that area and we’ve been resilient this road trip. Winning on back-to-backs shows a lot about your toughness.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.