BOSTON — Kevin Garnett found Keyon Dooling for a 3-pointer. Then the Boston big man hit a fallaway jumper of his own. Back at the other end, Garnett grabbed a rebound to start a fast break that ended with Avery Bradley at the free throw line.
Just like that, the Celtics broke open a tie game and took a seven-point lead they never relinquished.
Garnett had 23 points and 10 rebounds on Wednesday night to lead Boston to a 94-82 victory over the Utah Jazz and move the Celtics back into a tie for first place in the Atlantic Division. Garnett had 10 points and three assists in the fourth quarter, when Boston recovered after blowing an 18-point lead.
“He’s been playing like that a lot in the second half of the season,” said Celtics swingman Paul Pierce, who scored 20 points. “We’ve been going to him a lot out there. And he’s been inspiring on both ends of the floor.”
Brandon Bass scored 19 points, and Rajon Rondo had 14 assists for Boston, which won for the fifth time in six tries to move into a tie with the Philadelphia 76ers atop the Atlantic Division. After playing at Minnesota on Friday night, the Celtics play seven games in 11 nights against likely playoff teams.
“We kind of smell the end of the season, with the playoffs coming,” Pierce said. “This is the time of year you’ve got to step it up and get ready.”
Former Celtic Al Jefferson had 18 points and 12 rebounds for the Jazz, scoring 10 in a 17-3, third-quarter run that turned an 18-point deficit into a two-possession game. The Jazz tied it early in the fourth before Boston scored the next seven points — with Garnett contributing on all of them — to pull away.
“He’s just so experienced and such a competitor,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. “He’s going to do whatever he can do to help his team win. He did it on both ends of the floor tonight. He made the big shots; defensively, he fought and clawed.”
Garnett and Jefferson, who were traded for each other in the 2007 deal that created the New Big 3 in Boston, had a physical matchup all game, picking up matching technicals with 6 minutes left in the game. Even in the final seconds, with the outcome already settled, Garnett wouldn’t let Jefferson put up a show.
“Just another game,” Jefferson said. “That’s all I’m going to say about that.”
Utah had won seven of its previous eight games.
Gordon Hayward scored 19 points, and Paul Millsap had 16 for the Jazz, who fell into a three-way tie with Denver and Houston in a race for the last two playoff spots in the Western Conference.
“Any time you have to battle from 18 points down, then you basically have to start over again,” said Hayward, who had back-to-back blocks in the fourth as the Jazz keep the game within reach.
“That’s definitely something we’ve shown on this road trip. We have fight. We’re never going to give up. The heart on this team is great. We’ve just got to be a little bit better in the first half and not get down so we don’t have to fight back like that.”
The Celtics took a 44-29 lead with 2:22 left in the half on consecutive alley-oops from Rondo to Ryan Hollins. Boston opened an 18-point lead, 61-43, with 7:40 to play in the third quarter.
But the Jazz scored 17 of the next 20 points — 10 of them from Jefferson — to make it a four-point game. They then ran off six in a row to tie it 66-all, scoring the first five of the fourth quarter on Enes Kanter’s jumper and a three-point play by Alec Burks.
That’s when the Celtics snapped out of their slump.
After Garnett put up an assist, basket and rebound in quick succession, Bradley hit a pair of free throws that 73-66.
The Jazz never got closer than three points after that.
Notes: Ray Allen missed his fourth consecutive game with a sore right ankle … Celtics F Chris Wilcox is scheduled to have surgery for an enlarged aorta on Thursday. … Pierce made seven free throws to give him 6,041 in his career and pass David Robinson for 15th place on the NBA’s career list for free throws made. Next up: Wilt Chamberlain at 6,057. … Jefferson and Garnett drew matching technical fouls with 6 minutes left. … Jefferson was 1 for 8 from the floor in the first half.