Sunday was exactly what the doctor ordered.
The Celtics had something to play for: win in Memphis on Sunday and the Celtics wind up as the 2-seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. While some teams (like the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers) took the path of resting their stars an extra day for playoff health, first-year head coach Ime Udoka decided to keep the starting five in the lineup against the Grizzlies — who had their own playoff seed sewn up and did not play their regulars.
Matchups in the first round weren’t of consideration to Udoka, as he viewed home-court advantage and the process of trying to win as many games as possible as more important than steering towards or away from certain opponents:
Ime Udoka: "Everyone is talking about Brooklyn, but they have a Play-In game to play. You can run from teams, and they don't even end up being there. What we concluded was: Let's do what we do and let the chips fall where they may."— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) April 10, 2022
The decision to play their regulars paid off in a big way against Memphis, as Udoka got exactly what he set out for. The Celtics won 139-110, locking up the second seed and home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The regulars were dominant in the opening quarters, taking a 23-point lead into halftime that allowed Udoka to rest the starters. No major injuries were incurred (despite a slightly worrying moment when Marcus Smart took an elbow to the jaw). A complete success.
Tatum was the catalyst for the hot start, going nuclear in only 26 minutes. He finished with 31 points on 11-14 shooting (6-8 from 3-point range) and was a game-high +29. He closed the half with a dominant, nasty move on rookie Santi Aldama that gave him a four-point play and pushed the C’s lead back into unreachable territory:
The C’s worked on a few counters to get Tatum open right out of the gate in ways that will foil common playoff defense. With Jayson leading the C’s in scoring, he’s likely to get extra attention on the scouting report. The Grizzlies tried a common strategy, known as top-locking, against Tatum where they would stay between him and the ball to force him away from coming off screens or handoffs.
Udoka called up a counter for him out of a Horns set that led to an open backdoor in the first quarter. The fine-tuning of their playbook and wrinkles to read a defense, gaining chemistry within the first unit, is the biggest takeaway from any game where the outcome is rarely in doubt:
Jayson Tatum catches the lob for the SLAM pic.twitter.com/Fidrzx8SUZ— Celtics Nation (@CelticsNationCP) April 10, 2022
Other Celtics had positive moments, too. Al Horford was his typical, efficient self and played really solid defense. Jaylen Brown had 18 points in 23 minutes. Daniel Theis finished with a double-double in 26 minutes and had a nice putback slam.
The second unit and bench guys had a solid showing, maintaining the lead and letting those stars rest. A highlight was the play of Malik Fitts, who finished with 7 points in 9 minutes and had a thunderous rim attack and slam:
MALIK FITTS OH MY GOODNESS pic.twitter.com/v4848p9CUK— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) April 11, 2022
Others played well, too. Payton Pritchard kept his hot shooting up, going 2-5 from 3-point range with 12 points on the night. Luke Kornet went 5-7 in extended minutes, important for the rest of both Al Horford and Daniel Theis. Both Sam Hauser and Aaron Nesmith drained a 3-pointer. Everyone got in and everyone scored.
Rest is important for the Celtics, and the good vibes from the bench were fantastic. But most vital to their success in the postseason will be chemistry and keeping up the momentum the Celtics have built over the last few months.
From a coaching perspective, there’s always something to play for — even if a victory doesn’t add or change anything to their spot in the standings. Any time a game is played, habits are formed and those habits come back to either help or hurt the team when the games get tough. As Marcus Smart said in his postgame interview, keeping the rhythm alive was an important goal for the team on Sunday.
"We just want to continue good habits... we wanted to come in, keep doing what we been doing and keep the rhythm alive" -@smart_MS3 talks with @tvabby about the Celtics playing starters playing tonight ☘️ pic.twitter.com/BImnqN0RWn— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) April 11, 2022
We’ll wait for whoever comes out of the Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers matchup to see who the Celtics play in the first round. Either way, it shouldn’t matter. Bring on whoever wants to try this C’s defense. As long as we’re at full strength and cohesive, no first-round opponent should give us a scare.