1. At the 6:53 mark of the second quarter, Dillon Brooks hit a step-back three-pointer to put the Grizzlies up 42-35. That shot capped a 9-0 Memphis run and it looked like Boston was once again in trouble at home against a lesser opponent. But unlike most of the previous three weeks, the Celtics didn’t let it snowball. Instead they put together the most impressive defensive stretch they’ve had all season.
Boston started scrambling on the perimeter to force turnovers. On the rare times Memphis got something off the bounce, Boston collapsed and shut down the paint. By the time the Grizzlies scored again, there was one second to play in the first half and the Celtics were on a 23-0 run. Overall, from the final 6:53 of the second quarter through the entirety of the third quarter, Boston outscored Memphis 64-21. That’s taking control of a game and turning it into a blowout. And that’s two straight games the Celtics have done that after weeks of uneven play.
2. Marcus Smart was predictably a big part of the defense during the decisive run, but the best part of his night was his passing. At times it looked like Smart was auditioning for a spot on the Harlem Globetrotters. Nothing fancy on this first one, but an on-time bounce pass out of pick and roll to Daniel Theis:
Then Smart started having fun. This pass to Javonte Green, after Green helped Kemba Walker up off the floor on the defensive end and sprinted down, was something right out of the Larry Bird playbook:
A couple of plays later, Smart and Jayson Tatum hooked up for this pretty back and forth:
Marcus Smart Night was a couple of weeks ago, but his best play of the season has come over the past week.
3. It was a good night for the Celtics bench. Green got some increased minutes with Jaylen Brown out due to a sprained right ankle and Green delivered. He scored nine points and made a bunch of nice defensive plays. Mostly, his energy is infectious. He gets out there and makes a couple of bouncy plays and everyone else picks up their effort level. All good teams have energy guys that can change a game in that way.
4. Semi Ojeleye played another strong game too. Slowly (very!) but surely, Ojeleye has been transitioning from a spot-up shooter to the guy we saw make plays off the dribble in college. On this play, Ojeleye catches and drives immediately. There is no hesitation and then he finishes over the bigger Jaren Jackson Jr. through contact.
Good stuff from Ojeleye, who projects to be an important rotation player against a handful of teams Boston might see in the playoffs.
5. Jayson Tatum was on fire and he’s starting to string together good offensive games. It’s always a good sign when he gets an early basket. When he gets it and doesn’t settle for a mid-ranger jumper, it’s even better:
We’ve talked a lot about Jaylen Brown’s improved patience, which allows him to use his strength and athleticism to finish around the basket. Tatum flashes that here. He powers through the defender and then is patient enough to use the rim to protect his lefty finish:
And then once Tatum has the feel, he drills bombs like this with the confidence of making a layup:
6. Tatum also made a couple of nice reads as a passer. On this play, he drove and drew the defense before making the right pass to Theis (sharpshooter Daniel Theis that is!) for the open triple:
7. Unfortunately, all the excitement about Tatum’s big night is a little bit tempered by him getting hurt in the second half. He landed awkwardly after a layup attempt and was later diagnosed with a strained right groin. The good news is that Tatum came back out to the bench. Usually a serious injury keeps a player in the locker room for the night. And Brad Stevens said postgame that he wasn’t too concerned. Keep an eye on the injury reports, as Boston has a tricky road trip over the weekend and into next week at Orlando, New Orleans and Miami.
8. Gordon Hayward had a somewhat quiet night as a scorer, as he took only seven shots and scored 12 points. But he was involved in the game. That’s the important part. He had four assists, including this great transition bounce pass to Enes Kanter (who was also very good once again with 13 points and eight rebounds):
And when Hayward is involved and aggressive you get explosive plays like this:
Look at how fired up the Boston bench is. Those plays give everyone a huge lift.
9. The Celtics threw in a defensive wrinkle that we haven’t seen much of this year. They went to a 2-3 zone for a handful of possessions in the first half. What was different about it was that they put Marcus Smart in the bottom of the zone on the left block, while Jayson Tatum was up top. Smart is strong and smart enough to hold his own inside, and Tatum up top lets him use his length to disrupt passes. Look for more this against bigger teams that struggle to shoot the ball from the outside.
10. So, how are you feeling about the Celtics now? This season has been a bit of a roller coaster. Some really massive highs with a handful of terrible lows. It’s been more good than bad though. As Brad Stevens used to stay a lot in his early days as Celtics coach: “It’s a process.” The process this season was getting the bad taste from last year out of their mouths and learning together on the fly. As the season has gone along it’s been working through injuries on a nearly every game basis. The important thing is that we’ve seen how good this team is when everyone is available. Those nights they look special. A few games like this one, where they win big despite being down a key player, will only go further to strengthening that confidence and belief.