Boston Celtics continue road trip with tough test against Utah Jazz

The Boston Celtics continue their Western Conference road trip when they face the Utah Jazz, live on Sky Sports Arena in the early hours of Saturday morning.

The Celtics (7-4) sit third in the Eastern Conference, having snapped a two-game losing skid with a dramatic 116-109 overtime victory over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night.

Boston, powered by a game-high 39 points from Kyrie Irving, staged a furious rally to overturn a 22-point third-quarter deficit to force overtime before Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier sealed the win in the extra session.

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The Jazz (5-6), heavily tipped to force their way into the upper echelons of the Western Conference playoff picture, have endured a stuttering start to the season, losing their opening four home games before finally ending that unwanted streak with a 117-102 win against the visiting Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday.

Celtics forward Gordon Hayward will make his first return to Utah, for whom he starred for seven seasons before leaving to join Boston via in free agency in 2017.

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Key Battle: Jazz defense vs the referees

Utah’s success in the 2017/18 season was built on their outstanding defense, marshalled by the ‘Stifle Tower’, French center Rudy Gobert. The Jazz ranked first in points conceded per game (99.8) and second in overall defensive rating, a statistic that measures how many points a team allowed per 100 possessions.

Eleven games into this season, Utah are giving up 109.5 points per game and rank 17th in defensive rating. And personnel changes on their roster are not to blame.

What has changed are the NBA’s rules relating to defense, in particular the introduction of the ‘freedom of movement’ on the perimeter and in the post. For a team who plays such physical defense, stricter policing of contact on screens on the perimeter and illegal contact close to the basket have had a major impact on the Jazz.

As Gobert told the Deseret News: “I think it impacts everyone. We want to be a physical team and we want to impact the other team’s movement. It’s a big change. Guards that are using that as an advantage to get fouled. It’s hard, but it’s the same for everyone so we have to adapt.”

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Last time out

Numbers game

100.7 – That’s the Celtics’ league-leading defensive rating. Unlike the Jazz, Boston coach Brad Stevens has adapted quickly to the NBA’s new defensive dictates and in young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown has athleticism and length to provide high-level perimeter defense.

Closer to the basket, veteran center Al Horford’s strength and savvy make it difficult for opposition teams to consistently attack the rim.

One to watch (Celtics): Gordon Hayward

Hayward became an All-Star during his seven-year stay in Utah before signing with the Celtics but his career in Boston was immediately derailed by a horrific ankle injury five minutes into his debut in October 2017.

After almost a year of rehabilitation, Hayward is back on the court but, so far, has looked a long way short of his best form. That’s understandable given his time away from the game but returns of 10.1 points per game and below-league-average three-point shooting percentage (a lowly 33.3 per cent) will have to improve if he continues to start games.

Will Hayward find inspiration playing at his former home arena?

One to watch (Jazz): Donovan Mitchell

Hayward’s departure from Utah was ultimately softened by the emergence of Donovan Mitchell. The explosive shooting guard came close to winning Rookie of the Year honours last season (he lost out to Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons) and has continued to progress this season, upping his scoring average from 20.5 to 22.4 per game as he shoulders the scoring burden.

Will we see a repeat of the towering dunk he unleashed on the Mavericks when he attacks the Celtics defense?

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