Pierce leads Celtics to fifth straight victory, 104-98 over Jazz

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By DOUG ALDEN AP Sports Writer

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Paul Pierce was angry and embarrassed after the first half.

Pierce had no points and no rebounds in 19 minutes, 33 seconds, essentially leaving the Boston Celtics without one third of their "Big Three."

Pierce woke up at halftime and led the Celtics to their fifth straight victory, beating the Utah Jazz 104-98 Saturday night.

"I was really mad at myself at the half," said Pierce, who scored all of his 24 points in the second half. "I knew I was going to come out more aggressive at both ends of the court. That's what I tried to do."

Pierce finished with six rebounds -- also all in the second half -- including a crucial one that helped seal the Celtics' 14th win in their last 15 games.

Pierce had just broken a tie on a layup with 28 seconds left to play. Utah's C.J. Miles tried to put Utah back up with a 3-pointer, but the ball bounced high off the rim and Pierce was able to grab it, draw a foul and seal it for the Celtics with two free throws.

Ray Allen scored 23 and Kevin Garnett added 15 points and nine rebounds for the Celtics, who complete a four-game road trip Sunday at the Lakers. The NBA's best team is looking at sweeping a cross-country trip.

"In my years past, we always talked about going .500. Being able to go .500 was a successful road trip," Allen said. "We're ahead of the curve here."

Ahead of the curve? The Celtics are blowing the curve for the rest of the league. At 25-3, Boston is starting to approach some of the best teams in NBA history.

Allen said any critics who question how the Celtics are winning and the strength of the teams they're doing it against can wait and see how Boston finishes. For now, whoever the Celtics play seems overmatched.

"Big games will come down the line soon enough. We have no control of what the schedule is and who we play up to this point," Allen said.

The Jazz fell back to .500 with their second straight loss and third in four games.

Deron Williams had 22 points and 11 assists, and Carlos Boozer finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds for Utah, which had five turnovers in the fourth quarter.

"They had the young guys out there on the floor that really defended us. We couldn't deal with them," Utah coach Jerry Sloan said. "You have to work. It's a job to play this game and try to do it effectively every time."

The Celtics were too strong for the Jazz inside, especially after Pierce woke up in the second half. Pierce made two free throws just 8 seconds into the third quarter, then added a 3-pointer to cut Utah's seven-point halftime lead to two.

"We had to get him going," Boston coach Doc Rivers said. "Once he got it going, you know, you've seen Paul, it's tough to turn him back off."

Boston outrebounded Utah 41-30, and Garnett and Kendrick Perkins kept the Jazz from developing much inside.

Utah had to rely on outside shooting and eventually lost its touch at the end. Utah finished 40-for-73 from the field, but couldn't make a field goal in the final minute. The Jazz were coming off a 123-109 road loss to the Lakers the night before.

"Hopefully they got taught something in the game tonight, so they'll be better next time," Sloan said. "I'm real proud of the fact that we played hard after a tough game last night, where we got walloped."

Saturday wasn't another walloping, but it was still another loss that could have been a win.

Pierce hit a 3-pointer that put the Celtics up 88-80, then added an offensive rebound and a putback to give Boston a 90-82 lead. The Jazz stormed back with an 11-0 run, getting a desperation 3-pointer by Mehmet Okur that banked in as the shot clock expired.

That shot put Utah ahead 91-90 with 5:09 left and led to the back-and-forth finish.

Allen broke a 95-all tie with a 3-pointer, and Boozer hit a jumper with 1:22 left, then a free throw with 43 seconds remaining to tie it at 98. The Celtics had plenty of time, but Pierce got Ronnie Brewer off balance and drove for an easy layup to break the tie.

Notes:@ Miles was starting for Andrei Kirilenko (biceps) and finished with 11 points. ... Both teams finished with 12 turnovers. Rajon Rondo had seven assists for the Celtics and Tony Allen scored 10 points off the bench. ... Matt Harpring added 11 points and Paul Millsap scored 10 for the Jazz. ... Pierce made 10 of 11 free throws.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-12-29-07 2246MST

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