Memphis put themselves in position to win early and often. Although the first quarter went the Celtics way (29-26), Memphis was still objectively playing well. They were successfully driving towards the basket and opened up the floor for the offense to operate.
What began the separation these two teams Saturday night was the second quarter when everything Memphis did well and everything Boston did poorly was ratcheted up to the max level. Memphis won the frame 38-18 by continuing to attack the paint, a strategy to which Boston usually defends well.
The Celtics were without Aron Baynes and Robert Williams and it showed. Mike Conley, who finished with a game-high of 26 points, and Marc Gasol did a fantastic job of running the offense at the perimeter, swinging the ball around until someone found an opening in the Boston defense and took advantage. That someone was usually Dillon Brooks, who was just 3-4 from the field in the first half, but shot and made 5 free throws and was 2-2 on three-pointers to total a game-high 13 points in the first half. Brooks finished with 19 points.
Memphis took a 64-47 lead into halftime. By the end of the third, that 17-point lead had shrunk to just 8. It got worse.
Memphis just couldn’t keep up their crazy-good 63% shooting that they had in the first half. Boston tightened up and made it much more difficult for Memphis to get into the paint, through driving or entry passes. Memphis didn’t play bad, necessarily, but their play definitely came back down to Earth.
Kyrie also came to life in the third quarter. After a spotty first half, he became much more assertive and his team was better off for it (unfortunately for Memphis fans). It was an inevitability that Kyrie would wake up eventually--he’s just too talented--but we’ve seen Memphis give up leads before, bigger ones at that. Any move Kyrie made was just more and more terrifying knowing that the Celtics were slowly, but surely on their way back into the contest.
And of course, Boston did. With just under six minutes left in the 4th quarter, Boston took their first lead since the 2nd quarter after a beautiful Kyrie drive and Eurostep into a layup to give the Celtics the 91-90 advantage. In the midst of a five-minute (yes, 5 whole minutes) scoring drought, the Grizzlies couldn’t and didn’t answer, giving Boston the momentum heading into crunch time.
Memphis’ offense decided to take that crunch time, and the whole 4th quarter, off, as if it were included in their holiday break. After playing near-perfect basketball in the second quarter, Memphis’ play deteriorated to simply good in the third to putrid in the fourth. That thing about the Grizzlies putting themselves in a position to win? They were actively climbing themselves out of that winning position as if it were a situation to escape. Coach Bickerstaff’s rotations were funky, but turnovers and a flat-as-heck offense let the game slip away. What didn’t help was Marcus Morris hitting miraculous shots and Kyrie Irving doing Kyrie Irving things at the worst time possible.
This loss drops the Grizzlies to 18-17 and outside of the playoffs at the moment. Memphis’ next game is in Houston on New Year’s Eve (Monday) as they take on James Harden and the Rockets.