Celtics 103, Jazz 99
BOSTON — Hopefully, for their sake, the Jazz took time while visiting here to voice their displeasure regarding the whole taxation without representation issue.
Because they sure seemed disinterested in representing their conference, and themselves, with much more than an obligatory appearance at the FleetCenter.
Utah — looking little like the team that came here with the highest winning percentage (.696) in the Western Conference, and second-highest behind Philadelphia in all of the NBA — opened a three-game Eastern road swing with a 103-99 loss at Boston on Friday.
Afterward, the best in the West was kicking itself for its start in the East.
"We just didn't get after them," guard John Starks said after Utah allowed its first opponent in 20 games to score 100 or more points. "I guess they were a little more hungry."
And that gives the 39-19 Jazz something to chew on before they move on to Washington and Atlanta for games on Sunday and Monday, respectively. That's two more meetings with opponents that, like 26-33 Boston, are sub-.500 teams Utah is heavily favored to beat.
"That's the thing that's frustrating," Donyell Marshall said after the Jazz permitted idle Portland to skip ahead of it atop the tight Western Conference playoff race. "These are the teams we have to beat. These are the games we have to win."
"We let one slip away," Bryon Russell added. "That's the only thing I can say: We let one slip away."
Literally, and figuratively.
The Celtics aggressively pressured the Jazz into 18 turnovers, including six during a fourth quarter in which Utah nevertheless stood a chance for victory. A slew of successful Boston trips to the free-throw line, however, ensured that the Celtics would win their seventh straight game at home.
"They just came out and beat us at our own game," Marshall said. "They pick-and-rolled us to death."
The Jazz led by 1 with as few as eight minutes and 40 seconds remaining and never trailed by more than 6 down the stretch.
After Russell hit a tough baseline with 1:39 remaining, Boston's advantage stood at just 1, 93-92.
Boston did build it back up after that to 99-93, primarily on the strength of game-leading scorer Paul Pierce, who collected 6 of his 30 during that stretch with an improbable inside hook and four straight free throws.
John Stockton put up a failed 3-point attempt between those two Pierce trips to the line, but no one from Utah even bothered to go for the rebound, frustrating Jazz coach Jerry Sloan and epitomizing his club's disinterested approach throughout.
"I just thought they outworked us to try to get some of their offensive rebounds that they got to finish the ballgame," Sloan said. "A couple of plays that we ran there, it look like we had played last night instead of them. They played (Thursday night at New York), came back and played hard.
"I think a pretty good example of where we were (is) we ran a little pick-and-roll out at the top, and we had four guys standing on the perimeter after the shot was taken. They wanted the ballgame more than we did, and they deserved to win."
The Celtics — who answered an early 10-0 Jazz run with an 11-0 run of their own to eventually lead 54-50 at the half — closed by hitting 10-of-10 free throws.
Pierce was 6-of-6 from the line in the final two minutes, and Milt Palacio made two after Stockton hit a 3 that cut it to 99-96 with 10.9 seconds remaining. Utah's Danny Manning was fouled behind the 3-point line and made all three freebies to make it 101-99 with 3.4 to go, but Bryant Stith, who was finally fouled after Eric Williams managed to run away from Karl Malone, added two more to account for the final margin.
Jazz season-scoring leader Malone struggled on the offensive end, scoring just 17 on 7-of-15 shooting. Russell add 17 more, but backup center Greg Ostertag wound up with game-high scoring honors by posting a season-high 18.
"This is a disappointment, but you have to give them credit. . . . (But) you don't sit there and blame it on a helluva lot," said Malone, who did take responsibility for four failed free throws and a critical fourth-quarter turnover. "We had opportunities. They did, too, and they took advantage of them. . . . If I had any kind of semblance of a Karl Malone game, we would have won."
Malone, however, wasn't the only struggling visitor from Utah.
Marshall was held to 12 points, and Olden Polynice, coming off a string of impressive outings, including a season-high 15-point effort against Vancouver on Wednesday, produced just 4 points in 16 minutes.
Still, the fellas from out West did not leave pointing fingers. Rather, they prepared to depart for Washington, another town where taxes are a hot topic.
"We win as a team, we lose as a team," Russell said. "You can't blame any one person."