JAZZ 99, CELTICS 96
Celtics tuned out
Jazz do a number on a ragged squad
Redundancy in the postgame comments was to be expected. The Celtics talked about the importance of playing hard all four quarters. They preached the significance of a consistent defensive effort. They mentioned the search for team identity and team chemistry. They spoke of trusting each other at crucial moments.
These familiar themes date to the beginning of the season, when the Antoine Waker trade left the Celtics reconstituting themselves on the run. Another trade, another step back to the basic tenets of the Boston system. Effort for four quarters. Consistency on both ends. Defense from start to finish. Without any of those essential elements last night at the FleetCenter, the Celtics fell to the Jazz, 99-96.
Boston showed character as it rebounded from an 18-point, third-quarter deficit to briefly take a 1-point lead with less than a minute to play. There were 50.8 seconds remaining when a 10-footer by Jiri Welsch capped a 10-0 run and pushed the Celtics ahead, 96-95, giving them the lead for the first time since the opening quarter. But Raja Bell came through with an awkwardly launched, clutch 19-footer with one second on the shot clock. Bell followed with a layup, setting up the winning margin after Mike James missed a last second 3-pointer from the left corner.
"Of course it hurts because we played well," said James. "Even though we didn't play our best game, we still played good enough to win. There's definitely no quit in us. We're not going to give up until it's the end of the game. But we just have to be able put it together [for four quarters]. We're a good enough bunch where we don't have to put ourselves in that position, where we have to fight at the end of the fourth quarter in order to get the victory. That's what we have to grow to now."
In the final assessment, the Celtics blamed their defense, or lack thereof, in the first half and most of the third quarter for their demise. Utah shot 72 percent in the first quarter, 57 percent in the first half and better than 60 percent early in the third as the visitors opened with a 24-8 run.
Coach Jim O'Brien worried about "defensive slippage" before leader Eric Williams was sent to the Cavaliers along with Tony Battie and Kedrick Brown on Monday. The trade only increased the likelihood of defensive lapses, including the sluggish start Boston experienced last night.
"Whenever you lose your defensive leaders, guys who have been here like Eric Williams and Tony Battie, it's going to be an adjustment period," said Paul Pierce, who played ill, finishing with 19 points, 8 assists, and 5 rebounds. "A lot of guys are new here and still trying to learn the system. So, it's going to take some time, but I think the potential is definitely there."
If you watched the first half and most of the third, that statement stretched credulity. After erasing an 8-point deficit and forcing three ties late in the second, Boston entered the break down, 52-50. The way the Jazz shot in the first half, the gap between the teams could have been much worse. DeShawn Stevenson scored 18 of his 22 points before the break. He hit two consecutive 3-pointers in the opening quarter to give Utah its first lead, 22-21, with 3:09 left. The Jazz did much of their damage in the first half with mid- and long-range jumpers.
There was no let up in the third. With 3:24 left, the Jazz held an 18-point lead (76-58). But when Walter McCarty (14 points) hit a 3-pointer with 2:40 remaining, momentum started to shift. That started a 7-0 Boston run.
An athletic dunk by Ricky Davis with 1:02 to go really brought the Celtics, and 14,114 fans, back to life.
Davis likes being an energy player, and his dunk drew Boston within 11 points (80-69). The next big basket came from Marcus Banks, another player who likes to entertain with his athleticism. Banks (career-high 12 points) shimmied his way to the rim for a layup with 22.8 seconds to play in the third. The basket cut Utah's advantage below double digits, at 81-72, heading into the fourth.
The Celtics made their run. Bell (4 points) made his shots. And the game ended with the Celtics still wondering what they have with their new group.
"We showed a lot of heart, but it takes more than one game to say what kind of character this team has," said Pierce. "It definitely took a lot of heart getting back in the game, but we've got to wait awhile before we can start to develop some character."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.