It’s the final day of the NBA regular season, and multiple teams are still fighting for seeding including the Boston Celtics. After a slow start to the year, the Celtics have turned their season around, and are now considered to be one of the better teams in the league.
Tonight, the Celtics will face another team that has surpassed expectations to become the more feared rosters in the NBA, the Memphis Grizzlies. According to the Celtics injury report, everyone except for Robert Williams and Nik Stauskas is available for tonight’s game, while the Grizzlies are yet to inform the world of who is and isn’t going to be suiting up tonight.
Here are three things to keep an eye on during Sunday’s game.
Both the Celtics and the Grizzlies are guaranteed a spot in the postseason, and neither is in danger of sliding into a play-in position. So, even if both teams failed to rule out their players via an injury report, there’s still no guarantee we see their full-strength roster take to the court tonight. And even if we are treated to some star player minutes, that doesn’t mean they’re going to get a full game's worth of playing time.
Perhaps Ime Udoka wants to keep Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in rhythm, so opts to give them 20 minutes each, or maybe the Celtics head coach decides to experiment with some new lineups to see how they would look against high-level competition.
There’s also the concern about a potential matchup with the Brooklyn Nets, who currently occupy the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Should the Bucks lose and Celtics win, Boston will likely face Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the first round for the second straight year, and that isn’t ideal given Robert Williams’ absence.
Taylor Jenkins might also decide to rest some of his stars. The Grizzlies sit 2nd in the Western Conference and their position is guaranteed at this point, so why risk injuries to some of your star players with nothing to play for? Or is ensuring your guys keep their rhythm and momentum a risk worth taking?
Controlling the space
Similar to the Celtics, the Grizzlies like to run a double-big lineup when healthy, with Jaren Jackson Jr providing size and spacing at the 4, while Steven Adams offers physicality and rebounding at the 5. With Robert Williams healthy, the Celtics can combat the Grizzlies quite well, but if Jenkins decides to field a full-strength roster, playing a bunch of drop defense could be the Celtics' undoing.
Sure, Adams’ doesn’t boast a mid-range game, and isn’t one of the elite passers at his position, but the Grizzlies do have numerous guys who will look to operate in the space created by a back-peddling Daniel Theis or Al Horford. The Grizzlies sit 9th in the NBA for mid-range shots attempted, although they’re only 20th in mid-range shots made - but with Adams and Jackson Jr. crashing the boards, the team is more than capable of punishing you on second-chance points and currently ranks 7th for offensive boards per game.
Whoever the Celtics decide to put on the floor tonight, the game plan will likely be to pinch in on drives, box out on every shot, and switch on the perimeter as much as possible. The Grizzlies are a well-balanced roster with limited weaknesses, and in order to limit their effectiveness, the Celtics will need to limit the space in the mid-range that we usually see created by drop defense, while also ensuring they limit mismatch opportunities on the low-block.
We might even see the return of the “veer back” defense Ime Udoka used earlier in the season, where a guard switches onto a rolling big around the elbows and gets under them early to keep them away from the boards and remove post-entry opportunities.
If you've been listening to any of my podcasts in the last week or so, one concept you might have heard me talking about is the "veer-back."— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) October 26, 2021
Where a big switches onto the perimeter and the guard switches onto the roll-man. Here's a good example pic.twitter.com/ICyQTjQ8Md
As impressive as the Celtics have been over the last few months, you can never bank on their offense firing on all cylinders. Sometimes, Boston will go supernova from deep, and other times, they can’t buy a bucket on the perimeter and need to attack the rim with reckless abandon, that’s just how it is. Of course, the rise of Sam Hauser as a bench scorer, and Derrick White progressing to the mean with his shooting have both been welcome developments.
The Grizzlies have a top-5 defense and rank 1st in rebounds per game, so the Celtics will need to be disciplined in their offensive execution tonight because second chance opportunities will be limited. Memphis also ranks first in the NBA for “percentage of points scored on the break,” so the Celtics would be well served in tracking back after a shot attempt, rather than entering a futile battle for an offensive rebound.
Another part of the Celtics' game plan should be to limit their turnovers, as the Grizzlies are currently 6th in the NBA in points off turnovers, and first in the league for steals per game. To put it simply, Memphis is young and hungry and will punish every mistake with high-intensity hustle-plays that will leave you bruised and demoralized.
Assuming the Celtics field a full-strength roster, they should have enough ball-handling, playmaking, and defensive ability to combat whatever the Grizzlies can throw at them, but every mistake will likely get punished.
While the Celtics have continually said they’re aiming for the highest placed seeding possible, nobody would blame them for trying to finish the regular season in third place in order to avoid the Nets and get the slumping Chicago Bulls in the first round. But, if you want to be an NBA champion, you have to beat the creme de la creme sooner or later, so I would expect to see Boston come out hot tonight, as they bid to show the world they’re genuine contenders in the upcoming playoffs.