BOSTON (AP) — The collective sentiment among the Celtics following their 41-point win at Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee was it would be meaningless if they lost Friday’s follow-up at home against Utah.
Despite some unexpected hiccups just getting home, Boston successfully avoided a letdown.
Jayson Tatum had 39 points and 11 assists and the Celtics pushed past the Jazz 122-114 to continue to gain ground in the race for the East’s top playoff seed.
Boston had its normal travel routine altered following Thursday’s win at Milwaukee when an issue pushed its return flight back from postgame to early Friday afternoon. The Celtics landed six hours before the game.
“We kind of looked at it as a challenge,” Tatum said. “It was fun figuring it out regardless of how the last 24 hours was. It was rewarding. ... It kind of brought us closer together.” Malcolm Brogdon added 19 points and Derrick White finished with 17. Boston had 17 3-pointers, including five by Tatum.
The Celtics (54-24) are 1 1/2 games behind Milwaukee (55-22) and were coming off a 41-point win over the Bucks. Milwaukee is off until Sunday, when it hosts the 76ers. The Celtics have four games remaining.
“I trusted our guys,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “I knew we were going to be really competitive. I knew we were going to put ourselves in position to win the game. I could just sense it from our guys.”
Talen Horton-Tucker led Utah with 28 points and eight assists. Walker Kessler added 20 points and 10 rebounds.
The Jazz (36-41) came in holding the 12th spot in the West and trailing 10th-place Oklahoma City by 1 1/2 games and 11th place Dallas by a half-game. The Mavericks were idle, but the Thunder lost at Indiana.
The Celtics took control in the second and third quarters, outscoring the Jazz 66-49.
Boston also took advantage of a huge free throw discrepancy for most of the night. The Celtics connected on 21 of 22 attempts, compared to 13 of 14 for the Jazz. But 12 of Utah’s attempts were in the fourth quarter.
It was Boston’s players who took issue with the officiating with just over four minutes to play when Blake Griffin and Tatum were whistled for technical fouls 10 seconds apart.
A minute after that, Griffin and Kris Dunn got tangled up after a foul by Dunn, leading to a technical on Dunn. Tatum made the subsequent free throw, but Dunn had words for the officials, was assessed a second technical and ejected.
“I’m all for the fight, I’m not for fighting,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said. “Both teams were a little bit chippy. Nobody was dirty in any way.”
The exchange ultimately put the Celtics in front 117-101 with just over three minutes left.
With Al Horford (back stiffness) and Robert Williams (left knee) both out, the Celtics went small for the second straight game against the Jazz starting Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Griffin, White and Smart.
Horford and Williams also missed the first meeting between the teams earlier this month along with Smart — a win by Utah.
This time, it was the Jazz missing several contributors, with three of their top four scorers — Lauri Markkanen (bruised left hand), Jordan Clarkson (sprained finger) and Collin Sexton (strained left hamstring) — all out.
Jazz: Outscored the Celtics 68-46 in the paint. ... Didn’t take their first free throw until the 5:40 mark of the third quarter. Boston had attempted 16 to that point. ... Utah had six turnovers in the first quarter.
Celtics: Scored 19 points off 18 Jazz turnovers. ... Former Red Sox star David Ortiz, current manager Alex Cora both sat courtside, as did rapper Jack Harlow and actor Casey Affleck.
NOT SHUT DOWN
Hardy disputed a recent report that Clarkson and Sexton will be essentially shut down for the rest of the season.
“I watched Jordan and Collin do a rehab 3-on-3 this morning in hopes of getting back to playing. So, I have not shut them down for the season,” Hardy said. “They’re still preparing as if they’re coming back.”
Clarkson has been sidelined since March 7 (12 games). Sexton has been out since Feb. 23 (17 games).
Jazz: At Nets on Sunday.
Celtics: At 76ers on Tuesday.