Against all odds, the Celtics own a winning record on their West Coast road trip.
For the third time in five games against Western Conference opponents over the past week, the C’s came out on top, holding off the Jazz 99-90. The Celtics improved to 16-27 on the season, moving within two games of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. Even more promising, they wrap up the road trip on Wednesday against the Timberwolves, owners of the league’s worst record.
Tayshaun Prince of all people led the scoring effort with 19 points on 10 shots off the bench. Fellow reserve Tyler Zeller added 14 points and seven boards while Jared Sullinger (9 rebounds) and Avery Bradley each contributed a dozen points. Gordon Hayward led the Jazz (16-29) with 26 points against his former coach at Butler.
“He’s just like me,” Stevens told reporters of Prince. “He knows what’s going on. He’s lived it all. They’ve got you down by 20 in a quarter, and it doesn’t look like his pulse has moved. You go up by 20 in a quarter, and it doesn’t look like his pulse has moved. He’s just playing. He’s playing the right way. He made us better today. He’s made us better with his presence already, and that’s been fun. It’s been fun for our young guys to have another older guy to kind of lean on and learn from.”
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SECOND TO NONE
Fielding a lineup of Marcus Smart, Marcus Thornton, Gerald Wallace, Prince and Zeller to start the second quarter, the Celtics ignited a 30-7 run over the course of 7:32, transforming a 21-21 game into a 23-point lead. Proving he’s still a capable contributor, Prince highlighted the effort, scoring 10 of his 12 first-half points and adding three assists during the run. After trading buckets with the Jazz early, the Celtics never trailed again.
As is so often suggested, basketball is a game of runs. The run giveth, and the run taketh away. And boy did the run taketh away in the third quarter. The Celtics went nearly six minutes without scoring a field goal in the frame. Meanwhile, the Jazz starters rattled off an 18-0 run that slashed a 22-deficit down to four.
Since Jan. 25, 2013, the Celtics haven’t finished perfect from the free throw line when attempting more than 15 freebies in a game. After making their first 16 free throws to start the game, Prince’s miss in the final minute kept the streak alive. Still, those free throws made much of the difference, as the C’s finished 21-of-23 from the line (91.3 percent) while the Jazz missed eight of their 19 tries (57.9 percent).
As Celtics coach Brad Stevens continues to search for the right rotation, the Boston bench proved more effective than the starters in Utah. Led by Prince and Zeller, the C’s bench scored 53 points on 20-of-35 shooting (57.1 percent). With Bradley (4-12 FG) and Evan Turner (2-7 FG) struggling to find their shooting stroke, the starters scored 46 points on 15-of-39 shooting (38.5 percent), suggesting the depth of Stevens’ rotation is proving effective in the February doldrums of the NBA season ‘ particularly during their fourth game in five nights.
“You can’t come out the way we came out in the third quarter,” Stevens added postgame, “and I thought we were pretty locked in and engaged, but we looked like we were running in the mud a little bit with that group, so I went to the bench quicker, and I thought the bench really did it’s job both times pushing the lead out.”
Credit Stevens for motivating an ever-changing Celtics roster in the wake of the Rajon Rondo trade. After losing 24 straight to Western Conference foes on the road, the C’s have shown considerable fight during their six-game West Coast trip, winning three of their first five contests and giving the Warriors more than they bargained for. Despite the turmoil, this Celtics team is developing. So, cue a Tayshaun Prince trade, I guess?