SALT LAKE CITY - As Paul Pierce walked off the hardwood floor, he poetically chanted over and over again, "Road warriors, road warriors!"
The Celtics advanced to 3-0 on their four-game West Coast trip with a 104-98 victory over the Jazz at a sold-out EnergySolutions Arena last night. Boston improved to an NBA-best 25-3 record, winning its seventh straight road game and fifth straight overall. The loss was only the third at home this season in 13 games for Utah (16-16).
"This is a big win for us, man," Pierce said. "A lot of things didn't go our way. That's a tough team to guard. They shot the ball well. They're tough at home. The crowd was really into it. But some way, some how we found ways to get the win, man. It shows a lot about this team and we're learning more and more about ourselves every day."
Pierce scored all of his game-high 24 points, including two 3-pointers and 10 free throws, in the second half. Ray Allen scored 23 points and nailed five 3-pointers, Kevin Garnett added 15 points and nine rebounds, and the bench added 24 points. After giving up 56 points in the first half, the Celtics' top-ranked defense limited Utah to 42 points in the second.
"Any time you win, especially when it's a collective group, it's big," Garnett said.
The contest was not only sold out, but a Jazz official said there wasn't one extra ticket for coach Jerry Sloan if he wanted one. Former NBA player Vlade Divac couldn't locate any tickets for himself and his buddies and was aided by the Jazz with some press credentials for seats atop a corner of the lower bowl.
"They were all sold out," said Divac, who has a home in nearby Park City. "[Jazz forward] Andrei [Kirilenko] hooked me up."
While the Celtics rested in Utah Friday night, the struggling Jazz were hammered, 123-109, on the road to the Los Angeles Lakers. Kirilenko was out for last night's game with a strained right biceps tendon. Jazz newcomer Kyle Korver, acquired in a trade from the Sixers yesterday, wasn't in town yet either.
Even so, EnergySolutions Arena is one of the toughest places in the league for visiting teams.
"This is one of the hardest places to play," Garnett said. "This building has always been electrifying. I've always found it a pleasure playing here."
Utah entered the game fourth in the NBA in scoring with an average of 104.8 points per game. Boston entered with the NBA's top defense, allowing 86.3 points per game. The Jazz outscored the Celtics, 56-49, in the first half on 64.9 percent shooting and received a combined 23 points from guard Deron Williams (22 points, 11 assists) and forward C.J. Miles.
"[The coaching staff] got on all of them defensively," coach Doc Rivers said. "They were shooting 65 percent at halftime. We were trading baskets. It's almost a bad thing when you score early like we were in the first five or six possessions and we got into a trade-a-basket mentality. That's not how we've played all year."
Pierce shot 0 for 6 from the field and missed both 3-point attempts in the first half. He said he was really upset with himself at halftime for not being more aggressive. But when the third quarter began, Rivers purposely ran the first play for Pierce in hopes of getting him going. It worked.
Pierce got fouled on a shot eight seconds into the quarter and made both free throws to trim Boston's deficit to 56-51. The five-time All-Star scored 10 points on 3-of-4 shooting, including a 3-pointer and 3 of 3 from the line, in the third. The Celtics outscored Utah, 27-22, in the quarter, but were still behind, 78-76.
"We had to get [Pierce] going," Rivers said. "Once he got it going, you know you've seen Paul, it's tough to turn him back."
With every starter but Pierce on the bench, the Celtics opened the fourth quarter with a 7-0 run, including 5 points and two steals by Tony Allen, to take an 83-78 lead at the 9:55 mark. A Pierce 3-pointer gave the Celtics an 88-80 advantage with 7:49 left. But the Jazz roared back with an 11-2 run and took a 91-90 lead with 5:13 remaining after Mehmet Okur nailed a wild 3-pointer off the glass at the shot-clock buzzer.
An easy Pierce layup, however, with 28.3 seconds left gave Boston a 100-98 lead. And he sealed the game for the Celtics with two free throws with 11.9 seconds left to take a 102-98 lead.
"The type of player I am, I can turn it on," Pierce said. "The guys found me and I was able to do that."