On Saturday night, the Celtics found themselves at the FedExForum in Memphis, TN seeking a much needed Western Conference win against Mike Conley and the Grizzlies. The West has been a sore spot for the Celtics this season - as they entered this contest with a cumulative 5-7 record against Western Conference opponents. Boston would be obligated to address this problem, as their trip to Memphis marked just the second game of a 5-game stretch against consecutive Western Conference teams. Fresh off of an unnerving loss to the Houston Rockets on Thursday night, this was the Celtics’ opportunity to find a foothold on said stretch, before things got out of hand.
If you appraised the schedule at the beginning of the 2018-19 season, you probably would’ve regarded Saturday’s game in Memphis as a penciled-in win for the Boston Celtics. But context now illustrated that the Grizzlies would represent no “gimme” for Kyrie Irving and company.
After a volatile string of games, Boston entered Memphis going 2-4 in their last 6 games. However, this recent faltering failed to light an immediate fire under the C’s when it came time to tip things off against the Grizzlies.
The Celtics were their proverbial own worst enemy for the entire first half of Saturday’s game.
In the opening minutes both teams evenly exchanged buckets. Boston would close out the first quarter with a 29-26 lead - but that’s precisely where things started to get away from them.
One thing that really hamstrung the Celtics early on was their inability to establish a primary scorer. They were playing admirable, selfless inside-out basketball, trying to outpace the Grizzlies on the perimeter. But Boston’s scoring came predominantly in the form of fortunate, yet unsustainable three pointers, with their frontman Kyrie Irving opting to drive and kickout more often than not.
On the other end, the inveterate facilitator, Marc Gasol used his physicality and patience to carve up Boston’s defense, leading his team with 10 assists in this game. Times innumerable we saw Gasol running the offense for Memphis, taking the ball at the top of the key, calculating and pivoting to find the most efficient inlet pass to the paint.
What exacerbated the passing clinic that Marc Gasol put on was the unnecessary amount of space that the Celtics gave him to operate in.
Ball-pressure was admittedly a point of emphasis for Brad Stevens entering this game, yet his team did an alarmingly lousy job of squaring up the Grizzlies’ offense in the first half. Sure, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley are expected to do their thing on the offensive end - and you have to live with that. But the lack of ball-pressure out of the gate allowed for more peripheral players like Dillon Brooks to knock down a handful of open shots, benefiting from that unchecked ball-movement.
The Grizzlies, led by Gasol and Conley, capitalized on the unconcerned first half defense of the Celtics. In the driver’s seat, Memphis forced the issue by tenaciously attacking the rim; in the first two quarters they outscored the Celtics 34-12 in the paint.
Down 47-64 entering the intermission, Boston watched the Grizzlies rip off a disheartening 18-5 run to close out the second.
A Tale of Two Halves
An exasperated Brad Stevens must have made a helluva halftime speech, because what fans saw in the second half was a newly inspired Celtics team on both ends of the floor.
Where Boston had played off-ball, lackadaisical zone defense in the first two quarters - they came out of the gate in the third pressuring their defensive assignments. This started to result in turnovers for the Green Team - something they had been the victim of earlier in the contest.
With about 4 minutes left in the third quarter, Marcus Smart met a whirling Marc Gasol underneath the bucket. Scoring a well-deserved Tommy Point, Smart postured in his defensive position on Gasol, then ferociously ripped the ball out of the big man’s hands. This initiated a fastbreak that resulted in a monster three pointer from Kyrie Irving on the other end.
During the ensuing Memphis possession, Smart yet again forced a turnover on Gasol, then trotted back to the offensive end and drained a three pointer of his own.
Now the Celtics had brought the scoreboard to a manageable 73-83, down 10 points with still about 15 minutes of basketball left to play.
Smelling blood in the water, Kyrie Irving took over from here. Kyrie attempted just 4 FGs in the first half, though he finished the night with 26 points, 8/16 from the field. Balancing facilitating with indomitable knifing through the lane - Irving would explode for 22 points in the second half - the better chunk of those coming in a scintillating fourth quarter performance.
Riding on the coattails of a driven Kyrie Irving, the Celtics managed to tie things up halfway through the fourth quarter, after being down by as much as 19 points in this comeback victory.
Kyrie really put Boston on his back in the second half. On consecutive possessions, engendering a momentum-shift, he flew past multiple defenders in the paint to score back-to-back layups midway through the final quarter.
The better of the two drives came when Irving found himself covered by the larger, yet versatile Marc Gasol on the baseline. Kyrie intelligently up-faked, blew by the bamboozled Gasol, then walked the tightrope of the line, and finished with a southpaw floater.
That bucket made it 93-93 a piece. From then on Kyrie and the Celtics would never look back. Kyrie came to serve as the primary scorer overall, but he was aided later in the game by the ever-consistent Al Horford, who put up 18 points along with 6 rebounds in just 23 minutes played.
With just under 2 minutes to go, up 100-99, Kyrie gathered himself on the perimeter. Surveying the paint, he drives into a pocket of 4 over-committed defenders. Just when it appeared that we were going to have a jump ball, Kyrie exchanges elbows with the pressuring defense, and finds Al Horford sitting utterly unguarded beyond the arc for a wide open dagger.
That three pointer put the Celtics up by 4 points, with all the momentum on their side. Enduring a couple of goofy calls from Scott Foster’s questionable refereeing crew, Boston went on to edge out Memphis for a hard-fought 112-103 victory.
This win serves as a momentum shift in more ways than one for the Boston Celtics. By defeating the Grizzlies, the Celtics earned themselves a hard-reset on the aforementioned 5-game Western Conference gauntlet, which had gotten off to a poor start in Houston earlier in the week. Boston will look to compound on the momentum that they generated in Memphis, when they go to take on a familiar adversary in DeMar DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night.
Image: (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)(Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY Sports)