Boston • Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin saw the 18-point comeback. Al Jefferson said his team is still strong, confident and united. Devin Harris didn’t deny what Utah’s accomplished this season and still retains, but a 94-82 loss to the Celtics on Wednesday forced the Jazz point guard to acknowledge his team still has much to achieve before it can be considered more than just a playoff contender.
Boston kept Utah (27-24) at arm’s length for crucial stretches, and the Celtics (28-22) landed knockout-caliber blows at TD Garden when the minutes mattered most.
“We haven’t arrived yet,” Harris said. “We still need to obviously learn how to consistently win on the road.”
Utah’s just 8-18 away from Salt Lake City and only 11-19 against teams above .500.
Boston point guard Rajon Rondo constantly kept the Jazz on a string, recording a game-high 14 assists and shining a light on an off-night by Harris (five points, four turnovers).
Celtics forward Brandon Bass buried two key long-range jump shots late in the fourth quarter, allowing Boston to wash away a 66-all stalemate with 11 minutes and 7 seconds left in the final period.
Then there was KG. The 17-year veteran that arrived in Boston during 2007 — in a deal that shipped Jefferson to Minnesota — looked years younger than 35. Kevin Garnett’s defense was strong. His jumper was sharp. His tongue sharper. And he poured in a game-high 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting while collecting a team-high 10 rebounds, leading an efficient Celtics offense that dished out 24 assists on 36 made field goals and committed just 12 turnovers.
Jazz rookie Alec Burks said Garnett’s a dirty player, but he praised the 14-time All-Star’s Hall of Fame-worthy résumé. Jefferson said Garnett talks just to hear himself speak. But after being held to 7 of 19 from the floor and only shooting 1 of 8 during the first half, Big Al acknowledged respect forms the foundation of their on-the-court relationship. Meanwhile, Boston coach Doc Rivers and Garnett’s teammates said the biggest part of the Big Three was in mid-career MVP form Wednesday.
“Kevin’s been amazing,” Rivers said. “I was joking, but it’s true. If you had an All-Star vote at the center spot in the league right now he’d be up there, because that’s what he’s been since the break.”
He added: “[Jefferson] brought out the best in KG. No doubt about that.”
Utah brought little during the first half. And in a game the Jazz tried to steal — Utah trailed 61-43 with 7:40 left in the third quarter — Boston was tougher, meaner and more intense.
While the Jazz are still tied with Houston and Denver for seventh place in the Western Conference, Utah finished 1-2 on its East Coast road trip and dropped winnable games to Atlanta and the Celtics — teams that close contests just like playoff-experienced squads are supposed to.
“They’re physical. They got us out of our stuff. … Obviously what they got on the other end was within their offense and what they do,” Harris said.
Outscored 28-14 during the second quarter and trailing 46-35 at halftime, Utah shot just 39 percent overall from the field and 62.5 from the free-throw line. Some of the Jazz’s normal numbers were displayed — Utah outrebounded Boston 49-38 and outscored the Celtics 42-36 in the paint. But a delayed start by Jefferson and a combined 3-of-16 shooting effort from starters C.J. Miles and Harris left the Jazz’s options limited.
Second-year forward Gordon Hayward was by far Utah’s best asset. He collected a team-high 19 points, recorded seven rebounds and dished out five assists, all while contributing tight defense and delivering two monster blocks during a thrilling five-second burst.
But Hayward saw the same problems Harris did. The Jazz walked on the hardwood wanting to prove they belong among the NBA’s top 10 squads. They left Boston knowing an aging Celtics team has learned invaluable lessons it could take Utah years to achieve.
“They’re a veteran ballclub,” Corbin said. “Any mistakes you make, they make you pay for it.”
Storylines: East Coast trip ends with loss
R In short • The Jazz end their East Coast road trip 1-2 after falling 94-82 to Boston on Wednesday night.
Key stat • Utah shoots just 39 percent from the floor and 62.5 percent from the free-throw line.
Key moment • The Celtics go on a 16-6 run after the Jazz tie the game at 66 early during the fourth quarter.