7:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Celtics -2.5, Over/Under: 223.5
Two of the hottest teams in the National Basketball Association collide tonight in Beantown, as the Memphis Grizzlies head northeast to battle the Boston Celtics from TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. Oftentimes in sports, the most difficult thing to do isn’t necessarily going from point A to point B, but rather from B to C, which is something that the Grizzlies (43-20, 3rd in Western Conference) are mastering this season, asserting themselves as a legitimate power out West. After going a meager 72-73 over the course of his first two years in Memphis, (Head Coach) Taylor Jenkins has overseen a wealth of internal growth in year three, filling the power vacuum left by the Lakers and Clippers and molding themselves into one of the most impressive groups in the NBA. With that said, the campaign didn’t necessarily start out this way for the Grizz, who by the end of November were very much treading water at 11-10, only to put their foot on the gas and win thirty-two of their next forty-two games, including eight out of ten in the month of February. During this period, they’ve averaged 115.8 points per game on 46.7% shooting from the field, including 34.5% from beyond the arc, along with 25.4 assists in comparison to 12.7 turnovers, while utterly ANNIHILATING the opposition on the glass (+8.3), particularly on the offensive end where they’re a healthy +4.6. So, what in the name of Bryant Reeves is going in Memphis you ask? Well, it all comes back to that internal growth that referenced earlier, and no player on the roster embodies that more so than (All-Star Point Guard) Ja Morant (27.6 PTS, 49.8% FG, 34.4% 3FG, 75.4% FT, 5.9 REB, 6.6 AST, 1.2 STL, 25.3 PER), who ascended into superstardom in this, his third season in the Association. Back when Jenkins and (General Manager) Zachary Kleiman chose him second overall in the 2019 NBA Draft, all attention was paid to the guy chosen before him (Zion Williamson), but three years later there is ZERO question as to who has become the superior performer; no pun intended, but Morant has taken a MAJOR leap in 2021-2022, posting career-highs in a slew of categories including points (27.6), field goal percentage (49.8%), three-point percentage (34.4%), two-point percentage (54.0%), rebounds (5.9), steals (1.2), and PER (25.3). And for all intents and purposes, he’s getting even better, for over the last four games alone he’s authored a whopping 40.5 points on 53.4% shooting from the field, including 44.4% from downtown, along with 6.0 rebounds, and 5.0 assists, while knocking down 11.0 free-throws a night, highlighted by a career high FIFTY-TWO points in Monday night’s 118-105 victory over the Spurs (more on this affair shortly). With all that said, it’s awfully ironic that this current run of form was sparked without the 22-year-yold dynamo, who was nursing a sprained ankle back in early December when Memphis began their ascension; 10-1 during that period, credit the supporting cast for learning how to be effective without their star, with a number of young talents making their own evolutional leap. (Versatile Forward) Jaren Jackson Jr. (16.5 PTS, 41.5% FG, 31.6% 3FG, 80.1% FT, 6.0 REB, 1.1 AST, 1.0 STL, 2.2 BLK, 17.2 PER), who was selected fourth overall in the draft prior to Morant’s, is slowly becoming the two-way force that Jenkins and Kleiman envisioned, even if it has only been in spurts. Furthermore, (sharpshooting Swingman) Desmond Bane (17.5 PTS, 45.0% FG, 40.8% 3FG, 90.4% FT, 4.4 REB, 2.6 AST, 1.1 STL, 16.4 PER) has brought some sorely needed spacing to the equation, while (bullish Guard) Dillon Brooks (18.4 PTS, 42.6% FG, 32.7% 3FG, 88.9% FT, 3.3 REB, 2.7 AST, 1.3 STL, 15.8 PER) brings plenty of attitude and tenacity on both ends of the hardwood. Add a veteran Center such as Steven Adams (7.0 PTS, 54.3% FG, 55.3% FT, 9.9 REB, 3.3 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.7 BLK, 17.6 PER) to the mix and you have a hungry, young group that has been nothing short of entertaining to watch, leading the NBA in transition points and opportunities, thanks in large to their penchant for forcing turnovers; the Grizzlies have logged 15.0 takeaways per game (7th Overall) and posted a turnover percentage of 13.3% (6th Overall). As we hinted at earlier, they also put in plenty of work on the glass, for not only are they the league’s top rebounding side (49.3), they’re also its most prolific offensive rebounding unit too, securing 14.1 a night, along with a healthy percentage of 30.2% (1st Overall), which of course leads to a wealth of easy second chance points. Getting easy buckets is something that great teams do in spades, and the Grizz are no different, with a whopping 74.3% of their field goals coming from within the three-point arc. Now, is this style of play sustainable come the playoffs? Well, we certainly understand the skepticism regarding Jenkins’ troops given that they have the least amount of postseason experience of any side at the top of the Western Conference, but their energy and effort on the defensive end of the court translates well to the playoffs, even for a team that has an average age of only 22.25. Consider this though: the Grizzlies are a combined 5-2 against the other three teams that comprise the West’s top-four, including the Suns (1-1), Warriors (2-1), and Jazz (2-0), while 10-1 against the Nuggets (3-0), Clippers (4-0), and Lakers (3-1). No wonder, Jenkins and Kleiman ultimately decided against tweaking their team chemistry and stood pat at the Trade Deadline… they’re fine where they are.
When we last saw the Grizzlies, they won their second game in a row in the form of a 118-105 victory over the Spurs, which as we touched upon earlier featured an overwhelming performance from the aforementioned Morant. This one was absolutely LITTERED with highlights, as the young dynamo broke the internet on more than one occasion en route to totaling a career-high and franchise record FIFTY-TWO points. The only starter for Memphis to score in double-figures, Morant got literally whatever he wanted to get from San Antonio, sinking 30-footers, catching full court lobs to beat the buzzer, dancing around defenders in the paint, and one utterly DISRESPECTFUL dunk on Jakob Poeltl. In the end, the first-time All-Star shot a ridiculous 22-of-30 from the field (73.3%), including a perfect 4-of-4 from beyond the arc, with seven rebounds and a pair of assists. As a team, the Grizz shot a healthy 53.3% from the floor, along with 11-of-26 from downtown (42.3%), while obliterating the visitors on the glass, 55-38. Though no other starter scored over eight points, Jenkins’ bench was well-represented, particularly by (young Guards) De’Anthony Melton (10.0 PTS, 38.6% FG, 34.3% 3FG, 73.3% FT, 4.6 REB, 2.7 AST, 1.6 STL, 14.9 PER) and Tyus Jones (8.1 PTS, 46.0% FG, 35.4% 3FG, 87.2% FT, 2.4 REB, 4.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 16.6 PER), who combined for twenty-eight points on 10-of-23 shooting (43.2%), nine rebounds, and a pair of assists. Defensively, Memphis relegated San Antonio to a mere 41.4% from the field, including 9-of-32 from three (28.1%), while outscoring them both in transition (22-15) and in the paint (66-46). Trailing the Suns by 7.5 games for first place out West, it’s unrealistic to think that the Grizzlies will be able to catch them with nineteen games left in the regular season, though surpassing the Warriors is proving to be another matter altogether. Already holding the tiebreaker, Memphis remains only a half-game behind Golden State in the standings, with an easier schedule down the stretch including a date with the Dubs at the Grindhouse at the end of this month. Of course, the difference between finishing second and third is in all likelihood facing the shorthanded Nuggets versus whomever earns the seventh seed via the play-in tournament.
Meanwhile, prior to the All-Star Break, you would have been hard-pressed to have found a hotter team than the Celtics (37-27, 6th in Eastern Conference), who have really found their groove under the new regime, winning twelve of their last fourteen games. Indeed, this past summer saw Boston undergo a soft reboot, with the franchise undergoing some fairly significant changes; after spiraling to a disappointing 36-36 finish, their first at .500 or below in six years, and an equally disturbing exit in the first round of the playoffs, Boston parted ways with long time basketball czar, Danny Ainge, who was replaced by (Head Coach) Brad Stevens, who in turn effectively abdicated his position on the bench in favor of moving up within the organization. Of course, Stevens had presided over this current era of basketball in Beantown, arriving to a side hitting the reset button for the first time in ages, rebuilding them in short order; the 45-year-old took his team to seven consecutive postseason appearances, including three conference finals, all the while developing the talent acquired via the plethora of draft capitol that Ainge had amassed over the years. His choice to succeed himself would be Ime Udoka, who after cutting his teeth as a member of Gregg Popovich’s staff in San Antonio (2012- 2019), spent last season as Steve Nash’s chief lieutenant in Brooklyn. From a personnel standpoint, Stevens would quickly get to work in the offseason adding (veteran Forward) Al Horford (10.0 PTS, 44.9% FG, 30.7% 3FG, 83.5% FT, 7.5 REB, 3.4 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.4 BLK, 16.2 PER), along with (sparkplug Point Guard) Dennis Schroder and (versatile Swingman) Josh Richardson in an attempt to inject some more playmaking and creativity into the rotation, bringing Horford back to the Northeast after a two-year stint away from the club that he had previously enjoyed some of his greatest years with (2016-2019). However, this cocktail proved to be a bitter and unstable one at first, as Boston stumbled out to a disappointing 17-19 start over the first two months of the campaign, struggling to build chemistry on either end of the hardwood, with rumors of their two young star Swingmen, Jayson Tatum (25.9 PTS, 43.3% FG, 32.9% 3FG, 85.0% FT, 8.3 REB, 4.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.7 BLK, 20.4 PER) and Jaylen Brown (23.2 PTS, 46.3% FG, 34.8% 3FG, 76.5% FT, 6.2 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.0 STL, 18.3 PER), coming into conflict with each other. Fortunately for all parties involved, they squashed whatever perceived beef there was, with the C’s all the better for it, for Udoka’s troops have gone 20-8 since the turn of the new year, averaging 110.6 points per game on a healthy 47.1% shooting from the field, including 35.7% from downtown, while dishing out 25.3 assists in comparison to committing just 13.1 turnovers. With all that said, the biggest change has come on the defensive end, where they have rounded into one of the stingiest units in the NBA over this stretch, yielding just 99.7 points on 41.7% shooting from the floor, including 32.9% from beyond the arc, while outrebounding the opposition by a stellar 3.8 boards a night, and permitting 21.2 assists opposed to forcing 12.6 takeaways. Obviously, having Horford back in the rotation to organize the defense has given them not only one of the smartest players in the league but some sorely needed interior defense and physicality, which was a HUGE issue for them a year ago. Simply put, they couldn’t defend the rim at all in 2020-2021, and the big fella has been a huge component for a side that ranks second overall in blocks (6.1) and first in two-point field goal percentage defense (49.1%). To further bolster their ranks, Udoka and Stevens were busy at the Trade Deadline in adding (former Center) Daniel Theis (4.5 PTS, 72.7% FG, 50.0% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 0.8 AST, 0.5 STL, 1.3 BLK, 19.3 PER) and (versatile Swingman) Derrick White (11.8 PTS, 41.3% FG, 24.4% 3FG, 81.8% FT, 3.3 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.0 BLK, 14.9 PER) in multiple trades with the aforementioned Schroder and Richardson going the opposite way. While the former brings familiarity and toughness off the bench, the addition of the latter is a coup for the Celtics; spending his first five seasons in San Antonio, White is very familiar with Udoka, who has already begun to utilize his length and playmaking acumen to positive results. The 27-year-old has the size and versatility to guard multiple positions, which is a must in Boston, while fostering more ball-movement on the offensive end of the floor, which is another thing that this group struggled with last year. Basically, Tatum and Brown were charged with creating for themselves and the rest of the team, and for all their growth and development over the past few years, facilitating the attack isn’t necessarily their strength. And speaking of Brown, it will be important that White and the rest of the supporting cast pick up the slack tonight as the young swingman is expected to sit tonight with a sprained ankle suffered in Tuesday’s encounter with the Hawks.
When we last saw the Celtics, they bounced back from a blowout 128-107 loss at the Pacers with a hard fought 107-98 victory at home against the Hawks, thanks in large part to a seismic second half surge. Trailing 65-51 at halftime, Boston was sagging at both ends of the hardwood; Atlanta shot a torrid 52.3% from the field, despite only netting 5-of-15 from beyond the arc (33.3%), and assisting on just eight of their twenty-three field goals, though the hosts could muster only 43.9% shooting, including 5-of-18 from downtown (27.8%), while committing ten turnovers. Granted, a big reason for their lack of punch on the offensive end was Brown’s injury, which came just three minutes into the affair. Credit to Udoka though for rallying the troops at halftime, for the C’s came out like a house on fire in the third quarter, outscoring the visitors 31-13, shooting 12-of-23 from the floor (52.2%), and relegating the birds to a scant 6-of-20 shooting (30.0%) and 1-of-8 from three (12.5%). This is where the aforementioned Tatum went to work, scoring eleven of his game-high thirty-three points, leading the charge into the fourth quarter, where the home side continued to press their advantage. In the end, the Celtics shot 47.0% overall, including 11-of-35 from long-range (31.4%), and 18-of-19 from the charity stripe (94.7%), with twenty-seven assists opposed to a dozen turnovers. Though the Hawks killed them in transition (17-6), the home side was +12 from the perimeter and was far more efficient at the free-throw line, as Atlanta missed five of their twenty-four attempts. In what was turned out to be a duel between Tatum and fellow All-Star, Trae Young, it would be the former that had the last laugh, shooting 12-of-25 from the field (48.0%), along with eight rebounds and seven assists. Picking up the slack for Brown, (veteran Guard) Marcus Smart (11.8 PTS, 41.4% FG, 32.0% 3FG, 79.2% FT, 3.9 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.8 STL, 13.5 PER) chipped in with sixteen points on 6-of-14 shooting (42.9%), with six rebounds and five assists, while the bench was well-represented by (young Forward) Grant Williams (7.7 PTS, 49.2% FG, 43.8% 3FG, 63.4% FT, 3.3 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.5 STL, 0.7 BLK, 12.2 PER) and the aforementioned White, with both players logging eighteen points.