Celtics fans should've walked into the Garden on Monday night hungry for revenge against the Jazz but not because of Boston's 18-point loss to them in Utah on February 19. That had already been made up for with three wins in their last four. What Boston needed to avenge was Utah's disgraceful 98-96 loss to the Nets on Saturday, one that could cost the C's in the lottery.
Nevertheless, there were problems that could've been reflected upon from that Celtics-Jazz game. Brad Stevens described his team as "slow reacting" in the loss that broke their run of 10 wins in 12 games. But the rust was off now, and the C's were back at home where they had won 10 straight games going into this contest.
This time, in typical C's fashion, they made every reaction they needed to from start to finish, all the way down to Avery Bradley's block on the final possession to seal the 100-95 win. It was everything the team had built up to this point in the season, and they now head into March with the No. 3 seed by two whole games.
With the crowd behind them, a confident Boston team looked all the more able to fight with a team that embarrassed them weeks ago. Amir Johnson dunked inside on the first play before Jae Crowder came off of a turnover with a three.
But the Celtics' biggest problem, Rudy Gobert, continued to sit large and in charge in the paint, and Utah got an early three from Gordon Hayward that a similarly-structured Miami team had to wait until the third quarter to get.
Even though Gobert's wide frame and sizable presence next to Derrick Favors gave Boston fits inside, the Celtics were making Utah feel them on the first shots they threw up. The defensive competitiveness was there, forcing the Jazz to shoot 4-12 out of the gate, but Gobert and Favors were able to give Utah an early 11-4 rebounding advantage and 9-7 lead.
The Celtics looked to compete with Utah's early energy with a variety of looks offensively. They pushed the pace, as they did against Miami, to negate their half-court defense and worked off of picks to find perimeter shots for Bradley and Isaiah Thomas. But even as those two chipped away at the Utah lead, the Jazz began to find their stroke too, draining three straight buckets thanks to Shelvin Mack's point presence to push their lead to 22-14.
Things looked bleak again for Boston's offense against their incredibly stingy opponent, until who but Isaiah broke the wall down with an acrobatic lay-up inside over Hayward, a shifty lay-in around Gobert, and a torch off the catch by Raulzingo Neto. The C's pulled within 26-23, but Trey Lyles answered for the Jazz with a hard lay-up plus the foul.
After one quarter, Boston trailed 29-23, and the Utah's sweet shooting stroke only continued to improve. Lyles hit two straight buckets out of the timeout to push them up 10, and their rebound dominance grew to an incredible 24-9 at this point. As Lyles drilled another shot, on the perimeter this time, Stevens turned to young grinder Jordan Mickey for some interior help.
He immediately made his presence felt with Boston's second offensive board, and everybody seemed to be loving his extra-early arrival in meaningful minutes.
REAL MINUTES THAT COUNT FOR JORDAN MICKEY— Brandon InGrams (@ColeyMick) March 1, 2016
Mickey's minutes were real and impactful, helping the C's to immediately go on a 5-0 run and pull to within 25-15 on the boards. Boston was within six points as Evan Turner dashed ahead of everybody on the fast-break for his fourth straight bucket off the bench, and you had to wonder where these minutes for Mickey have been all year long. He was everywhere: shutting down Lyles on the perimeter, making his presence felt in the lanes, and even making some solid passes. The game had transformed.
Before all was said and done, a scrum came that epitomized the Celtics hustle, as Smart grabbed the ball from Lyles in the backcourt and pulled him to the ground. The ball bounced out and ended up in Crowder's hands, who pushed it inside to Mickey for the dunk. The latter came around a few plays later with a block on Hayward going for a dunk. Boston's run extended to 13-2 since Mickey entered, and the Celtics were within four with just under two minutes in the half.
As the buzzer rang, Thomas was putting up his fifth bucket at the rim to make it 46-43, and Jordan Mickey was trending on Twitter. It was a good night, there were only nine free throws taken between the two teams, but the C's still trailed and were going to need to bring their spark to the third quarter.
The second half wouldn't be easy either. The Jazz continued to put the pressure on Boston offensively with early Favors and Hayward jumpers. As their stops piled up, despite their low pace, the Jazz were able to throw up a ton of shots. It was scrap and claw between the two early in the 3rd. Two Thomas buckets and a Bradley putback were retaliated with two Favors makes and a Gobert tip in as Utah led 57-55.
The scrappiness was flying around on both ends. Even though Utah and Boston represent two polar opposite styles of play, the two seemed bonded by their energy and hustle throughout the night. Trailing by four with over five to play in the frame, the C's went to their small lineup with Crowder at the four next to Johnson. As the intensity began to grow, it was perfect timing for Marcus Smart to make his mark: grabbing the ball from Favors underneath the rim to force a jump-ball, hitting a three up top, and getting fouled from three next possession. Boston was back within three at 68-65.
For the rest of the quarter, the Jazz stuck to their motto, standing in their defensive sets and making Boston defend a long time in the half-court before finding looks to guys like Lyles when the C's pressed hard elsewhere. That helped Utah maintain its lead at 73-72 heading into the fourth quarter, but the Celtics were winning elsewhere in transition and on offensive cuts. The final frame could've swung in either direction, but Boston had still not led since early in the first for all their fight.
They came out the right way, running Utah out of the building in the early minutes and finding Jonas Jerebko for a three on the wing before getting it to Tyler Zeller on his typical rush up-court ahead of the defense. Boston had its lead, finally, at 77-76.
The Celtics were asserting their hustle once again, and it was beautiful. Smart ripped another ball out to get the ball back for Boston to set up a Bradley jumper off of some slick passing, while the ensuing stop transitioned right back into a Bradley fastbreak to make it 81-76 Boston off an 8-2 run.
It had become a game of differing identities, and the Celtics' run-and-gun offense started to assert itself. Utah could only set up three scoring possessions in the first five minutes.
The score stood dead even at 83-83 with six to go, and Utah was the first to strike with another Mack jumper in the paint. The scramble to the finish rolled forward. Gobert hit four free throws while Jared Sullinger hit two big jumpers. Thomas finished off a hesitation move, and Mack came back with a lay-up. Then Sullinger sprinted up-court with a rare fast break and dumped to Crowder for the bucket. The madness persisted at both ends, and with 2:41 remaining the score stood at 91-90 Boston.
The tides looked like they were turning again when Gobert missed two huge free throws and Isaiah got a look inside, but nope. The shot rolled out, and Mack finished in the paint to give Utah the lead. Boston came back, and Bradley finished a jumper to make it 93-92. There was no end in sight.
Then the final 42 seconds came. After a scramble at mid-court Boston retained possession, and Crowder buried a three off of the Thomas drive in response to Mack's crucial shot on the perimeter on the previous possession.
It came down to the hustle. As if it could end any other way. The Jazz came up the court, set themselves, and Hayward turned around only to have his shot stuffed in his face by Bradley. A play later, Bradley missed his second free throw, and Johnson was right there for the offensive board. Utah's fate was sealed. The Celtics won 100-95 for their 11th straight on the Garden floor.
Ten days prior they were "slow reacting" in Utah. This time, they reacted every time that they needed to from start to finish. That's the Celtics, and that's why they're still the No. 3 seed as March begins. They just keep on rolling, and boy do I get all the good games to recap!