When it looked as if the Celtics would suffer another crushing loss, another wasted fourth-quarter lead, and another solid effort, Tyler Zeller took advantage of the rare occasion when 7-foot-2-inch Rudy Gobert wasn’t breathing down his neck.
Catching an inbounds pass from Marcus Smart with 1.7 seconds left, Zeller took about 1.5 before sinking a reverse layup at the buzzer, sealing a thrilling 85-84 Celtics victory over the Jazz Wednesday night at TD Garden.
The Celtics blew an 8-point lead and looked cooked when former Brad Stevens pupil Gordon Hayward drained a 14-footer with 1.7 seconds left to cap an 11-2 Jazz run in the span of 2:15. The Celtics called a timeout to move the ball to half court, and then another 20-second timeout when Smart was unable to inbound the ball.
Utah coach Quin Snyder assigned Gobert to defend the inbounds pass, and he didn’t jump, allowing Smart to loft a perfect past to the 7-foot Zeller, who leaped, landed, and spun between Rodney Hood and Hayward. Zeller then flipped in the layup just moments before Gobert rushed for the block, giving the Celtics an encouraging win before a three-game trip.
Zeller stood stoic while his teammates charged him in celebration. The improbable play erased what would have been a difficult setback. Instead, the Celtics were lauding Stevens for the final play, a stunner considering Zeller was hardly considered an option. He has spent most of the season getting pounded by opposing centers, and spent most of Wednesday dueling with Gobert.
“This is definitely my first [game-winner] in the NBA,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure it was good. That’s really all I wanted to know. It was a great thing and Marcus put it right on the money, made my job easier. It’s a great feeling, especially [because] at the other end, Gordon had made the shot on me, so being able to come back and make the game-winner is an unbelievable feeling and this was kind of a must-win for us, so being able to get this win was big.’’
The win kept the Celtics within two games of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Boston led, 81-73, with 2:31 left after an Isaiah Thomas jumper. The Jazz followed with a 5-0 run, highlighted by a Hayward contested corner 3-pointer. Thomas followed with two more free throws before the Jazz countered with jumpers from Hood and Trey Burke.
Gobert then blocked a Jae Crowder layup, setting up a coach vs. pupil faceoff when Hayward, who played under Stevens at Butler, drained the go-ahead jumper in Zeller’s face. That left just 1.7 seconds left, and the Celtics have struggled in such late-game situations for years.
The thrilling victory took some of the sting away from Tuesday’s disheartening effort in Cleveland.
“We were expecting to come out and respond very well, the other night was embarrassing to ourselves, to this organization, and to the game of basketball,” Smart said. “We understood that, so we just tried to come out here and make sure that just not only to the coaches but to ourselves that that’s not the team we were and it was just a fluke game.’’
Although the Celtics struggled defensively against the Jazz, they did protect the ball, committing just three turnovers, a franchise low. Turnovers have been an official statistic only since the 1970-71 season, so the Russell-Cousy years aren’t included. Still, it was a testament to how much the Celtics valued this game.
Thomas scored 19 of his game-high 21 points in the second half on 5-of-9 shooting and Crowder added 18 off the bench. The Boston starters were 16 for 49 from the field, with only Avery Bradley (13) reaching double digits.
Utah entered having allowed the fewest points in the NBA since the All-Star break — an average of 82.7 — and the Jazz stymied the Celtics until early in the third period, when Bradley began the quarter by scoring the first 11 points.
“The No. 1 thing I walk out of here with is ‘damn their defense is good,’ ” Stevens said. “Like that’s an outstanding defense and it has the potential to be an outstanding defense for a long time. That was a sloppy game on offense because both teams were guarding really hard. That’s an encouraging thing. Their length bothered us. It bothered us bad but I thought our quickness bothered them a little bit too.”
Both teams were abysmal offensively in the first half, combining for 28-of-81 shooting and 4 for 24 from the 3-point line. Smart ended the half in positive fashion, scoring on a layup and free throw for a 34-33 Celtics lead. The Celtics shot just 32.6 percent in the first half, including 3 for 13 from Smart and Bradley.
The Celtics struggled offensively most of the evening, but they maintained the lead most of the second half with winning-type plays, such as Jonas Jerebko sprinting to tap an offensive rebound to Brandon Bass, or Smart tipping the ball off the hip of Gobert with just over three minutes left with a 6-point lead.
And the final play was one of those winning plays.
“All I had to do is turn around and find a way to get [the ball] up,” Zeller said. “It was a big win for us. Being able to show up here, grind it out, and find a way to win is unbelievable.”