CELTICS 102, JAZZ 80
Celtics' encore drowns out Jazz
SALT LAKE CITY - Eric Williams was right, or at least it seemed that way watching the Celtics last night. A few weeks ago, he said it would take them 20-25 games before they truly felt comfortable enough with each other to play consistently well. Last night at the Delta Center, the reconstituted Celtics played their 21st game. And they looked like a team that has finally learned to play successfully together.
During this two-game swing through Denver and Salt Lake City for Games No. 20 and No. 21, the Celtics transformed themselves into a different team. They no longer look like the squad that squanders big leads and lacks toughness. They no longer act like a group of players overly dependent upon the offensive talents of one player (Paul Pierce). Instead, the Celtics who defeated the Jazz, 102-80, last night were unselfish, confident, and comfortable with the passing game.
``These are the games that help us build character as far as our team chemistry and our team confidence,'' said Williams, who had a team-high 19 points. ``We've been having big leads and we've been blowing them. It was one of those situations where we never really put a complete game together yet.
``I think this game right here was one of the most complete games that we put together. It took us 20-something games, like I said it would, before our team got the understanding that it needed about what it takes as far as energy and mentally. We're finally starting to learn it. It's too bad we have to learn it through experience.''
It was the first time this season the Celtics won the second of a back-to-back set. The team's second straight victory also erased some of the bitter memories from two recent four-game losing streaks, including Friday night's collapse against the Suns at home in which it blew a 29-point lead. The Celtics routed the Jazz in large part because they shot 51 percent from the floor and held Utah to 39 percent.
The Celtics took a 17-point halftime lead and had no trouble increasing it. They entered the fourth ahead, 77-54, and in no danger of senselessly squandering the advantage. Realizing that, the home fans spent the period clearing out from the Delta Center.
``We're just hungry,'' said Pierce (14 points). ``We're playing like a bunch of rats trapped in a corner.
``It's been a tough road trip, but I think we really responded to the adversity. I think that game really woke us up. It opened our eyes. The guys wanted to really play well on this trip.''
The Celtics again surprised anyone who expected a tired team to take the court. In fact, they appeared invigorated by the adversity they have faced on the trip. What started with travel delays of epic proportions proceeded to a game in the thin air of Denver and concluded in Salt Lake City, where starting power forward Vin Baker couldn't play because of the flu. Raef LaFrentz, himself at less than full strength because of right knee tendinitis, started in place of Baker.
But it was as if all the troubles took the pressure off the Celtics, who played relaxed, unselfish basketball and built big leads. At halftime, it was 51-34, after Boston led by 19 on four occasions.
A 21-4 Boston run that lasted for half of the second quarter proved decisive. Williams was a major catalyst. After the Jazz closed within 24-22 on a 3-pointer by Raja Bell, Williams converted a 3-point play to start the run. Next, LaFrentz found Williams for a layup. A free throw from Jiri Welsch followed, then it was back to Williams, who hit a 3-pointer, then found LaFrentz for a layup. Pierce chipped in with a layup of his own, as well as a 19-footer. Free throws from Williams and Mike James along with a dunk from Tony Battie accounted for the rest of the scoring. When the run was finished, the Celtics held a 45-26 advantage with 4:38 left in the half.
Utah managed to take the lead for the first time at 17-16, when Matt Harpring hit a 17-footer with 1:45 left in the first quarter. However, the Celtics responded with a pair of 3-pointers to close the quarter with a 22-19 advantage and some serious momentum.
Now, the challenge is to sustain that momentum not just half to half, but game to game.
``It's only two games of being consistent,'' said Pierce. ``When we start putting together stretches of games of four, five, six in a row, games where we're playing like that, then we can really see what type of team we are. But we've put together two good games, which was great.''
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.