“What was that Kelly?” Tommy Heinsohn questioned while watching a highlight reel of bad first half misses from the Celtics. The only upside was that what he watched couldn’t possibly get any worse after halftime.
Tuesday night in Memphis the Celtics visited a Memphis team they should aspire to be more like; the second best defensive squad (96.7 points per game) in the NBA. Physical, aggressive, and consistent in their own zone. Al Horford rivaled Marc Gasol, one of the best centers in the league. Isaiah Thomas stared down Mike Conley in the midst of a career year. Avery Bradley struggled to control the ball on an early possession against an old Celts ball-hawk, Tony Allen.
Nothing was expected to come easy in this road game. Boston entered 9-3 with all their players active, but with an 0-7 overall record against teams with a winning percentage above .600 like the Griz.
Early on Boston found success in between the Grizzlies’ stingy three point and interior protection. Avery Bradley and Thomas converted on 18 footers, Horford found two buckets underneath the defense, and the Celtics were able to rush out to a small lead. Then the Memphis clamps were put on, as the C’s relinquished a 10-0 run getting a front row seat to Gasol’s new three-pointer, before Jae Crowder’s turnover turned into a deep Troy Daniels jumper.
Horford and Bradley led a quick run to get the Celts back up 15-14. With the 1st quarter shifting to the benches, the C’s took out Horford and the starters as Zach Randolph entered against their bench unit for the first time. His deep jumper capped off a 9-0 Grizzlies run and his team walked off the court in control of the game at the end of one 22-15.
The second quarter began with a rare Gerald Green sighting and seven straight misses between the two teams before Daniels hit his third straight attempt. On a second chance attempt Allen hit a floater over the backed-up Celts front line, who found themselves down 26-15 entering a Brad Stevens timeout. Kelly Olynyk netted the first bucket back door over three minutes in, then Daniels and G.Green went back and forth with threes. As Boston fell behind ten points again, Randolph began to assert his will with Johnson digging into him with his big body and serving him back to the bench with three fouls.
Thomas returned with Horford at the six minute mark. IT was able to disrupt a Randolph layup in transition with a great chase-down contest, but the Celtics trailed 13 scoring just 10 points in 13 minutes midway through the second. Then Gasol happened, recovering from a block for a three point play underneath the net then responding to a missed Horford three with a make of his own at the top of the arc as the latter rushed to contest.
Boston’s offensive struggles continued, so Stevens turned to the “IT-and-D” group, but the bleeding continued. Two more turnovers, another miss from three (1-14 in the half), and a string of makes by Memphis centered around great ball control by Gasol. At the half Memphis led 45-31, in complete control keeping Boston at 29% shooting while only allowing seven free throws.
Thomas moved quickly in the third to cut the deficit, coming around a pick for an early make at the basket before catching a Bradley pass behind Horford’s pick for the wide open three. Crowder repeated the protection for IT two possessions later and Thomas nailed another three to bring the Celts within nine.
The menacing presence of Gasol came into play again with Conley in the pick-and-roll. Johnson bit hard on Conley both times leading to an open three for Gasol, then a lane to the rim. Horford beat Gasol baseline next play, but Gasol bounced right back off a turnover with an 18-foot jumper. Olynyk threw away an easy outlet pass into the hands of Jamychal Green, Conley drilled a three behind a great pick from Allen, and the Celtics trailed 61-46.
After a timeout the Celtics were able to respond; Thomas hit a pair of free throws, then grabbed a rebound and found Horford who hit a jumper after getting Gasol on a fake step toward the basket. Bradley rebounded the next shot and took it all the way, drilling a high three and bringing the team within 10. Horford drilled a three, Crowder came around and received a Crowder pass to hit a deep two, and behind great passing and defense the Celtics moved within six.
Meanwhile as Conley and Gasol rested the Celts were able to hold the Grizzlies bucketless for over four minutes (from 5:33 to 1:17) outside of four free throws from Green. They were quick to respond once the drought ended, Rozier was stopped hard at the rim after a Randolph hook shot and Carter capped off the third with a wing three pushing the lead to 71-62.
Thomas was on the court to start the fourth and went right to work with a three-pointer, three free throw makes off a hard-earned mid-shot draw, and a quick trigger pull-up from the elbow. But Boston’s defensive lapses continued, allowing an early Carter three and a putback by Jarell Martin.
By this point though Thomas entered full fourth quarter mode with the C’s on a 12-5 run. Daniels drilled a three to disrupt momentum and Gasol grabbed a steal from Thomas, but Marcus Smart disrupted his pass at midcourt and got the ball to Jaylen Brown who drove through the paint for the bucket.
As Thomas erupted for 12 points in six minutes, Conley stepped up for Memphis. After Jonas Jerbeko nearly pulled in an offensive board and Smart tipped a ball right back to Gasol, Conley was able to drill a three. A possession later, with help from a lane violation, he drilled two free throws to put the Grizzlies up 85-78.
Despite the bumps in the road Boston’s comeback trail continued. Olynyk hit a three after Smart backed Conley down and drew in the defense. Horford forced two missed jumpers by Gasol and then Bradley drove into Gasol to hit the lay-up and the foul. Next play Horford rotated to block Green and dished an outlet pass to Bradley who gave the Celtics an 86-85 lead in transition.
Daniel momentarily broke up the C’s momentum with another three, but it swung back when Green threw down Olynyk under the basket on a pass. Boston entered the bonus, Olynyk hit his free throws, and Bradley was able to take it inside on Conley hard and get fouled. He hit his free throws as well and the Celts led 90-87.
But there was Daniels again. Hitting a three, his third, to tie the game at 90. A vicious back-and-forth began. Two Crowder free throws, a hard-driving lay-up from Randolph, a corner three from Conley off a pump-fake on Horford, then a Thomas three off the dribble from the wing to tie it at 95.
Conley stepped up again for Memphis, slowing his drive while he jumped and contorted his body to avoid Olynyk and hit a tough lay-up between defenders. 32 seconds remained, Thomas grabbed the ball up top and spun around the whole defense to get fouled at the rim and tie the game.
With 27 seconds left Conley took the ball up high with Bradley tightly defending him, Gasol received his pass, backed Horford down, turned and missed a 15-foot jumper. The Celtics grabbed the ball with one second left, Olynyk inbounded to Horford underneath the basket but the pass was just too low and the last-second lay-up hit the bottom of the rim. Overtime awaited.
Overtime opened with the Randolph-Gasol duo on the court for Memphis but the Celtics were on. Even as Randolph asserted himself with four points grinding the in the post; Crowder, Horford, and Thomas swung seven points off three straight big makes to start the frame. Then, as the Celtics led 104-103, Olynyk caught a mean elbow as he fought from behind for a rebound from Randolph.
Two nights after Thomas was ejected for his elbow, Randolph was sent packing with a flagrant two of his own. Olynyk hit a free throw to go up 105-103, but the Grizzlies stood firm for 24 seconds of excellent Boston passes to force a shot clock violation.
After a Daniels turnover and Olynyk miss, Martin got to the line for Memphis to pull within one. Then after Horford defended another Gasol turnaround perfectly, Allen swooped in and grabbed a putback lay-up to take a 106-105 lead.
Thomas surpassed his career-high with his 41st and 42nd points from the free throw line seconds later off a give and go from Horford that helped IT get a clear lane. Daniels missed a spot-up three then Horford was set up in isolation on Harrell for an easy post-up make underneath.
Next play, with five fouls, Bradley defended Conley’s drive to the bucket off the give-and-go from Daniels. After Johnson hit a free throw and Conley hit two, a fiasco emerged over whether Crowder called timeout or was fouled on the rebound. The timeout was granted, the C’s inbounded, and sealed the game on free throws. In a thriller, Boston found their signature win.