SALT LAKE CITY — As locker room attendants cleaned up the towels and medical tape and other remnants from the basketball game that had just been played Wednesday night at Vivint Smart Home Area, Celtics forward Jayson Tatum was the only player in the locker room still getting dressed.
He had just capped the best road trip of his career by pouring in 33 points in Boston’s 114-103 win over the Jazz, and he had just realized the Celtics were not leaving Utah until Thursday morning — an increasingly common approach as teams try not to disrupt sleep patterns with red-eye flights. But he wished there was an alternative.
“Everybody wants to go home,” he said with a smile and a sigh to a team equipment manager. “I’d sleep so good on that flight tonight.”
Tatum averaged 36.3 heavy minutes per game during this 3-1 trip in which the team’s lone loss was a two-point setback against the Lakers that several Celtics were still lamenting after Wednesday’s win. Particularly with Kemba Walker sidelined, Tatum was frequently tasked with putting this team on his back over the past week, and he was understandably exhausted.
He did plenty more in this rousing victory, Boston’s most impressive of the bunch, but he also received quite a bit of help.
There was Jaylen Brown, pouring in seven points during a 9-2 third-quarter run that flipped a one-point deficit into a six-point lead. There was Daniel Theis, outplaying Utah’s All-Star center, Rudy Gobert, at both ends of the floor. There was Marcus Smart, flipping passes over his shoulder, stealing balls few players can steal, and drilling three consecutive fourth-quarter 3-pointers.
“We have good players,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “They pull together and we showed some resiliency in this moment. So we’ll see if we can build off of it.”
There were plenty of reasons to believe this could turn into a forgettable night for the Celtics. They were playing their fourth game of a trip that included three time zone changes. They were without Walker, their All-Star point guard who remained sidelined with a sore knee. They were playing their second game in as many nights against a well-rested and desperate Jazz team that had lost three home games in a row.
But none of that ended up mattering.
“This was big,” Tatum said. “This was big for our team. This is a tough place to play. It’s a great way to end the road trip. We could have made excuses on the back-to-back, but we didn’t.”
By winning 14 of 17 games the Celtics have distanced themselves from the pack that was clawing at them in the Eastern Conference standings, and they have pulled within a game of the second-place Toronto Raptors.
Furthermore, they return home with a 21-year-old star who is brimming with confidence.
Over his last five games Tatum is averaging 35.4 points while connecting on 57.5 percent of his shots overall and 54.5 percent of his 3-pointers. Perhaps the greatest compliment Tatum can receive after his latest performance was that his 33-point game actually just felt normal.
In the second quarter, Tatum and Jazz All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell — teammates at last summer’s FIBA World Cup — were locked in a shot-for-shot duel in which neither player showed any signs of letting up.
Mitchell, who was slowed by foul trouble in the first quarter, blitzed through traffic and found the basket time and again during his 20-point period. Tatum did most of his work on the perimeter and answered with 18 points, helping the Celtics take a 53-51 lead to halftime.
Mitchell finished the game with 37 points, but he fired up 12 more shots than Tatum. Also, Mitchell made just 5 of 14 attempts in the second half.
The Celtics limited Utah’s other weapons. Gobert, who came into the night averaging 15.5 points and 14.3 rebounds, had 9 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 turnovers, and never had a real impact.
Tatum, meanwhile, welcomed reinforcements. Brown had 20 points and 6 rebounds, Smart had 17 points and 9 assists, and Theis chipped in with 16 points and 7 rebounds. The Celtics made 53.6 percent of their shots overall and 42.3 percent of their 3-pointers.
“Mitchell got going against us in the pick-and-roll [in the second quarter],” Stevens said. “We just tried to tweak some things we were doing there. But I thought our guys played really well and were really resilient all night. That start of the fourth with a lot of second-unit guys out there was good.”
The Celtics led 85-82 at the start of the fourth when backup center Enes Kanter sparked the offense with a pair of baskets inside. Then Smart drained three 3-pointers in a row before passing up a fourth to find Kanter for a layup.
Tatum drew more consistent double teams in the second half. When the Lakers took this approach on Sunday, it frazzled the Celtics slightly. This time they were more prepared. With Boston leading 100-92, Tatum pierced a trap and fired a crosscourt pass to Brad Wanamaker, who attacked a close-out and converted a three-point play.
With just 24 games left in the regular season, the surging Celtics are expected to welcome back both Walker and center Robert Williams soon. New possibilities seem to be emerging each day.
“It’s good to see it,” Stevens said. “Now we’ll see if we can keep being it. There’s too much season left to write the story about what you are. You have to keep doing it.”