SALT LAKE CITY — A night before, in a different city, Paul Pierce lamented a late loss. The Celtics captain said that his team needed to prepare for the playoffs by learning how to finish out a close game and emerge with a win.
Pierce showed teammates exactly how you do that Monday night by carrying them to a 110-107 overtime win against the Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena.
The win closed out a five-game road trip, on which the Celtics went 2-3. And Pierce said that even entering the game, he knew it would be their toughest game on the trip, because it was coming at the end, when players were mentally and physically exhausted, ready to come off the road, to finally go home.
After missing a shot that could’ve won the game at the end of regulation, Pierce entered overtime — the Celtics’ 10th OT game and 15th OT session this season — on a mission:
“To try to get this thing over with,” he said.
Pierce, who scored 26 points, hit three consecutive shots — a 3-pointer and two straight jumpers — and scored 7 straight points during overtime to carry his team home.
“Usually, in overtime on long road trips, you can just give in,” said Pierce, who made 10 of his 20 shots and added 8 assists and 7 rebounds. “This team just showed tremendous fight, dug in and did what it had to do.”
Said a breathless coach Doc Rivers: “Whatever that was, it was the best win of the year for me.”
Pierce played a starring role when the game boiled down to its final moments, as usual.
He curled off a screen and hit a 3-pointer near the top of the key to give the Celtics a 102-101 lead with 2:27 left in OT, quieting the deafening crowd for a few moments.
On the Celtics’ next possession, Pierce nailed a step-back jumper near the left baseline, and, after a defensive stop, he hit another midrange jumper.
“That’s why they call him The Truth,” said Utah center Al Jefferson, who had 15 points and 11 rebounds.
Kevin Garnett, who had 13 points and 10 rebounds, added a midrange jumper with 48.1 seconds left to extend the Celtics’ lead to 5.
After a layup by Jazz guard Alec Burks, Utah forced the Celtics into a shot-clock turnover, giving it a chance to tie the score.
But Garnett wisely fouled Paul Millsap, sending Millsap to the line while not allowing the Jazz to shoot a potential tying 3-pointer.
The Celtics were able to run the clock out from there, giving them a much-needed win, improving their overtime record to 6-4 this season.
“This very much was a key game,” Garnett said.
“Playing a tough team in a tough place to play. They’re fighting for something, we’re fighting for something. All of it on the line — and then you go to OT. It wasn’t an easy game at all.”
Rivers had wanted to rest Garnett for the first few minutes of overtime, but Garnett said he wasn’t comfortable with coming out.
“I didn’t believe that, but I kept him in and he was terrific,” Rivers said.
Gordon Hayward scored 26 points off the bench for the Jazz, who pounded the Celtics down low, with 44 points in the paint to the Celtics’ 28.
But the Celtics received a key performance from Avery Bradley, who scored a season-high 18 points and helped carry the team early on when points weren’t coming easy.
Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee, and Jason Terry also pitched in with double-digit scoring efforts.
“We have champions,” Terry said. “When you have champions that have been through so many tough games as we have, then you know you’re in good hands.”
After the Jazz used a 17-2 run to take an 8-point lead in the first half, the Celtics used a 17-2 run to take an 8-point lead in the second. Bradley keyed that run with consecutive 3-pointers.
Overall, the Celtics outscored the Jazz, 32-19, in the third to take an 80-72 lead going into the fourth.
But the Jazz opened the fourth on a 13-2 run, after which Rivers yelled at his players during a timeout for slipping on defense.
From there, the Celtics didn’t come up with all the stops they needed on defense, but they came up with several.
“Those guys have been winning for a long time, so they know what they have to do in situations like that,” Utah forward Marvin Williams said.
The Celtics hope they don’t have to face too many more situations like that this season, for their veterans’ weary legs already have taken quite a toll by playing so many overtime games.
But with one game in the next seven days, the Celtics can rest, in their own beds, knowing they gutted out a key win, one that Rivers believes was their biggest of the season.