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The Read & React: signature win in Memphis

Down 17, the Celtics grit-and-grinded their way to their most impressive win of the season against the Grizzlies.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Isaiah Thomas has historic night (Tim MacLean): Isaiah Thomas scored a career-high 44 points in Boston's overtime victory against the Grizzlies Tuesday night. And while the point total is certainly very impressive considering Thomas's 5-foot-9 size, it's the way he scored that can't be overstated—10/16 from the floor, 7/10 from three and 17/17 from the line.

Yes, the 21 points from beyond the arc are nice. But they aren't nearly as important as the 17 he recorded from the charity stripe. Thomas's ability to knife into the lane and draw defenders unlocked the entire Celtics offense, and his penetration forced the Grizzlies to make on-the-go decisions time and time again. Do you try to shut off his path to the rim, allowing him to kick the ball out to open shooters? Or do you take your chances letting him get all the way to the iron where he can either finish on his own or get two freebies?

When Thomas is at his best, he's a nightmare for opposing defenses, and tonight was one of those nights. His success as a scorer opened up opportunities for his teammates to take advantage of, and he had six assists to show for that. Only two other players in NBA history have scored at least 44 points, dished out six assists and shot 100% from the free throw line on at least 17 attempts—Deron Williams and Devin Harris, per Basketball-Reference.

Thomas isn't the best point guard in the league, to be sure. But he's certainly an All-Star-caliber player. A performance like this should quiet the naysayers who thought last year's appearance in the big Sunday game was a fluke.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Thomas Makes History, But His Duel With Conley Was Unforgettable (Jared Weiss): This hasn’t been the kind of year that you expect the Celtics to make history. Yet after the Celtics left Memphis with their first hallmark victory of the year, Thomas walked out in a class of his own.

Isaiah became the first Celtic to score at least 40 points and go perfect from the line with at least 15 attempts in the regular season, per Basketball Reference. Paul Pierce hit those marks once in the playoffs. Thomas’s 17 free throws were the most without a miss in Celtics history.

It was the 10th time in NBA history (going back to ’63-’64) that a player scored at least 44 points and shot 100% from the line with at least 17 free throws. The others on that list are Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Dominique Wilkins, Rick Barry, Adrian Dantley, Allan Houston, Deron Williams and……Devin Harris?

Despite all of that illustrious history he shared in this evening, the most fascinating aspect was his battle against an otherworldly Mike Conley in crunch time. In the final 13 minutes of the game, Thomas and Conley went blow for blow with 15 points to 13 points and 2 assists to 3, respectively.

Conley either scored or assisted all but one Grizzlies basket in the final eight minutes of regulation. When the called a timeout down three with three minutes left, Conley found Troy Daniels on a second chance possession for a equalizer three. He came back down a minute later to hit a big three to retake the lead, which Thomas quickly erased.

His drive to take the lead with 32 seconds left was a work of art. The slick crossover to get by Horford was nice, but his jump stop and reaching finger roll would make a Bolshoi ballerina blush.

But when Thomas got the ball on the following inbounds, he went right to the weak side lane and drew a controversial foul call. Regardless of whether the ref should have swallowed the whistle, Thomas is an expert at drawing contact and it paid huge dividends for him Tuesday.

While Thomas was white hot all night, the Grizzlies’ defensive approach played into his hands. Thomas lately has been obsessed with pulling up into a quick three in both transition and the pick-and-roll. The Grizzlies like to zone up on screens, sitting Marc Gasol down on the free throw line. So Thomas used this as an invitation to pull up when open or get in the paint and wreck havoc.

“Isaiah is one helluva scorer,” Jae Crowder said. “Just the way they were guarding the pick and roll, we knew it was a big night for our guards, especially for him, to get in the paint and live in the paint all night, because their bigs play a little back in the pick and roll.“

It was a helluva night for Thomas. He won the battle against one of the other great unsung stars of the league in Conley. He has another battle ahead against Russell Westbrook Friday, who has been putting up this kind of output routinely this year. Here’s to another featherweight battle of little giants.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

When it Mattered, Horford Beat Out Gasol (Bobby Manning): What will be overshadowed by Isaiah Thomas's twin tower 4s in the point category is how brilliantly Al Horford defended Marc Gasol down the stretch of the game. Gasol shot 0/3 in the fourth quarter and 0/1 in overtime, and each shot had a strong contest from Horford right in his face. This was on a night where Gasol, in the midst of a career year, still racked up 24 points, seven rebounds, and six assists. Silencing Memphis' imposing force in the middle was crucial, but Horford also had six rebounds between the 4th quarter and overtime, while burying two big buckets after missing his potential game-winning layup at the end of the fourth.

While many debate whether or not Horford is a superstar, he's certainly displaying that he's an elite frontcourt defender. He's tied with Karl-Anthony Towns for 17th in basketball with 39 blocks and boasts shutdown performances on arguably the two best centers in basketball in Gasol and DeMarcus Cousins. Horford may not look like a typical superstar, but the number of areas he's able to impact the floor makes him one.

Guards playing big (Keith P. Smith): For most of the night, it looked like the Celtics would push the boundaries of some all-time offensive ineptitude. But games last for 48 minutes, and the Celtics flipped the script in the second half. Isaiah Thomas carried the night offensively with 44 points on just 16 field goal attempts. He was 10/16 from the field overall, 7/10 from behind the arc and 17/17 from the charity stripe—just a tremendous performance by Boston's very real, non-fake All-Star.

But the Celtics wouldn't have won if IT didn't get a little help from his backcourt buddies. Avery Bradley was the prime story there. There have been a lot of questions about Bradley's standing as an elite defender this season. Maybe his increased offensive responsibilities have lessened his defensive impact. Or maybe it is because he has to hit the boards harder and has to leave his man. Or maybe it is much ado about nothing. Tonight, it would seem the latter. With Mike Conley controlling things throughout most of the game, Bradley locked in on him in the fourth quarter and overtime and put Conley in his own personal perimeter torture chamber. Conley still made a couple of plays, but they all came with Bradley draped all over him. Perhaps most impressive was Bradley's work off the ball. If Conley gave the ball up, he generally didn't get it back. Or if he did get it back, he was around 35-40 feet from the basket. This was a callback performance to the reason why Bradley made the All-Defense team last year.

And let's not forget Marcus Smart. With Memphis down three and looking for a game-tying triple, Brad Stevens subbed in Smart for Thomas. Smart had been sitting for the entire OT at that point and could have been cold. He was asked to defend Troy Daniels (who had been killing the Celtics) for this key possession, and Smart delivered big time. Conley was looking for Daniels off a screen, but Smart destroyed the entire play. He blasted right through the screen and stuck right with Daniels. Memphis' first option was gone, the clock was running down and the Grizzlies forced up a contested shot. None of that will show up in the stat sheet, but that was a game-winning type of play from Smart.

On a night when Boston could have packed it in on the road, they found a way to win by getting back to their own version of "Grit 'n Grind". And that is a most welcomed return for sure.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

IT4 was awesome, Horford was solid, but don’t forget Brad Stevens (Bill Sy): It’s a broken record: Brad Stevens is a master in his ability to watch film before games, adjust in game, and draw up plays on the fly after a timeout when the team really needs a bucket. Last night against the Grizzlies, there were six times in the fourth quarter and overtime—SIX TIMES—when the Celtics had to score to either tie the game or take the lead.

Boston scored almost every time.

Technically, this wasn’t after a timeout, but after Mike Conley hit a three to break the tie, officials reviewed the shot to make sure he was behind the line, giving Stevens a free time out in the process. Bad idea for the Grizzlies. The Celtics had been running that rub screen all night. With Memphis defending so aggressively on the ball, it was necessary to free up Thomas and get him in motion and in space.

Down two with 32 seconds left in regulation, Stevens looked for a quick hitter in order to get a two-for-one. There’s nothing fancy here with Avery Bradley setting a pick for Thomas, but by spacing the floor and keeping it simple, Thomas gets to the line for two and the final shot.

Looks familiar, right? Stevens is just brilliant at positioning his players in spots where he knows teams will be forced to switch, and all his big man needs to do is seal and catch a lob. Unfortunately, Horford is just a little too far under the basket and misses the bunny with Tony Allen on his back.

Another Brad Stevens special. He loves starting a sideline ATO with Isaiah Thomas on the other side of half court. He’s run plays where Thomas never even crosses midcourt. It’s this Jedi mind trick, and Mike Conley buys it hook, line, and sinker. For whatever reason, he takes his eyes off of IT4, Olynyk lobs it to Horford, and Thomas slingshots passed Conley and Gasol for an easy look at the rim.

This might have been the most intricate ATO of the night. Up one and looking for another opportunity for a two-for-one, Stevens recognizes a glaring mismatch with Jarrell Martin checking Horford. What does he do? He runs some misdirection with Avery Bradley. On the defensive side of the ball, the two people you’re most aware of in a sideline out of bounds play is the inbounder (Thomas) and the guy running through the most screens (Bradley).

What’s critical on this play is the timing of Bradley’s phantom double down screen and Horford fighting for position on the block against Martin. Crowder times the bounce pass with Bradley using Horford’s screen and Tony Allen sliding between Martin and Horford. That half of a second allows Horford to get deep position on Martin for the easy power hook.

Maybe this isn’t John Nash level stuff, but Brad Stevens has a beautiful basketball mind.

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