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CELTICS 101, JAZZ 89

Play it again: Celtics find winning note

Boston rejoice. The Celtics boast a two-game winning streak.

While that accomplishment may be little comfort to sports fans at large with Johnny Damon in pinstripes, the city's struggling basketball team could not be happier. At 9:58 last night, the Celtics celebrated a 101-89 victory over the depleted and exhausted Utah Jazz. The win was far from pretty or impressive. But when the final buzzer sounded and the streak became official, none of the Celtics seemed particularly bothered by the fact that they committed 15 turnovers in the first half or that the visitors twice rallied from 11-point deficits, and finished with a 45-32 rebounding advantage.

All that mattered was that Boston shed the stigma of being the last team in the league without consecutive wins. The NBA record books will reflect the ignominy, but the Celtics now can turn their full attention to more important matters, such as their looming five-game road trip west.

For anyone who thinks winning consecutive games is simply a small step forward in a long season, consider the postgame mood in the Celtics' locker room. Paul Pierce sounded downright giddy at the prospect of entering the so-called Christmas break with some semblance of momentum. Smiles lingered all around. Players stretched comments beyond clichés and even cracked a few jokes. Coach Doc Rivers filled his post-victory remarks with good-natured sarcasm.

''Listen, I went to Marquette, but I realize if you win one and then you win again that constitutes two," Rivers said with a smile. ''That's good for us. It's been strange when you think that it's taken us this long to do it. The positive is that our guys kept playing. Usually, when you haven't won more than one game in a row at this point in the year, you're 10 or 12 games under .500. The fact that we are where we are says a lot about the guys."

The Celtics are three games below .500 (11-14) and very much in the thick of an Atlantic Division race that makes up in competitiveness what it lacks in talented teams. Before last night, the Celtics downplayed the importance of a two-game win streak, publicly talking instead about learning from mistakes and growing as a team. But really, they wanted a solid stretch of play that carried from one game to the next more than anything. They needed it before the confidence of players young and old took a dangerous dive.

''It's good to finally get that monkey off our backs," said Pierce (game-high 30 points). ''It's something we've been talking about for a little while now. Hopefully, we can build on it. It wasn't pretty, but we got it done."

With pesky, well-coached Utah unwilling to give up, Boston grinded out the victory after its aggressiveness wavered during the middle two periods. To secure the win, it took an explosive fourth quarter from Pierce and commendable hustle from Delonte West (15 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks) in his first game back from the mild concussion he suffered last Saturday night in Chicago. The Celtics could not sustain 11-point leads in the second and third quarters. So, fittingly, the game came down to a test of composure, determination, and energy in the fourth. Utah did not lack composure or determination. But in the second of back-to-back road games without Andrei Kirilenko (back spasms), the Jazz simply could not muster enough energy down the stretch. Utah also could not overcome 23 turnovers that led to 29 points for Boston.

Still, the visitors closed to 2 points (78-76) with 9 minutes 18 seconds remaining. The Jazz stayed close until Mark Blount started a 7-0 run when he hit an 18-footer with 4:52 left. West capped the spurt with two free throws that pushed the Celtics ahead, 91-80, one minute later. Any hope the Jazz had of yet another comeback disappeared in the hands of Pierce, who scored the Celtics' final 10 points on midrange jumpers. The captain clearly did not want the opportunity for consecutive victories to pass Boston by for the 10th time this season.

Finally feeling good about themselves, the Celtics are eager to get back to work. With four days until they play again, Monday in Seattle, Rivers has scheduled a couple of practices before Christmas to keep players focused.

''If Doc really wanted to, we would practice all the way up until we take off," West said. ''We've still got [more than] half a season to go and we're not where we want to be. So, we might send out some Christmas cards and then get back to our game."

Sounds like business as usual. Or at least, the Celtics hope consecutive wins become the norm.

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