There was no more room for moral victories.
As was the case against the Golden State Warriors two weeks ago, the Celtics played inspired basketball against the Western Conference elite, only to lose their hold on the lead in the final minutes versus the Memphis Grizzlies.
Only this time the C’s made shot after shot in the waning moments to pull out a thrilling 95-92 victory they desperately needed to stay alive in the Eastern Conference playoff race. In the final 1:40, Jae Crowder made a game-tying 3-pointer; Marcus Smart converted an alley-oop-and-one to grab a one-point lead; Tyler Zeller pulled down a defensive rebound between Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph before converting a pair of free throws for a three-point advantage; and Avery Bradley sank a step-back jumper over the league’s 2013 Defensive Player of the Year to seal the deal. It was a remarkable combination of effort and execution.
The win keeps the Celtics (27-36) within striking distance of the Miami Heat (29-35) for the East’s eighth playoff seed with three games against the Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers in four nights starting Friday. On Wednesday, Bradley led five Celtics in double figures with 17 points. Jae Crowder netted 16 points and Kelly Olynyk dropped 15 while Brandon Bass and Tyler Zeller added 12 apiece.
For a complete box score, click here.
The Celtics have climbed their way out of the bottom of the league’s defensive ratings to the middle of the pack in recent months, allowing 103.2 points per 100 possessions for the season, but they’ve ranked among the NBA’s best in the fourth quarter in 2014-15 — holding opponents to 98.4 points per those same 100 possessions in the opening 12 minutes.
That held true against the Grizzlies, as the C’s limited a loaded Memphis frontcourt of Jeff Green, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to a combined two first-quarter points on 0-for-4 shooting from the field. Outside of Mike Conley, who made four of his five shots in the game’s first 9:43, the Grizzlies shot 26.7 percent in the frame. As a result, the Celtics established a 23-18 advantage and played with the lead for much of the night.
BRANDON BASS IS A BEAST
Once the Celtics shipped Rajon Rondo to Dallas, Bass and his $6.9 million expiring contract joined the list of C’s most likely to join him on a plane out of Boston. Yet, the 29-year-old continued about his business, banging the boards, dropping midrange jump shots and two-handed dunking his way into an increased role in the absences of Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk. Since the All-Star break, Bass has averaged 13.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 31 minutes a night, posing the question: Is Bass a keeper?
JEFF GREEN WITH ENVY?
He may have been wearing a different uniform, but Jeff Green looked awful familiar in blue and gold, submitting the same sort of lackadaisical performance the Garden crowd had grown accustomed to over his three seasons in Boston. After receiving a warm ovation during the starting lineup announcements, Green treated the Celtics faithful to a 1-for-5 offensive performance in the opening half of his first game against his former team. Meanwhile, the likes of Evan Turner, Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko out-hustled him on the other end. For the record, the Celtics started 12-23 with Green this season and entered Wednesday’s game 14-13 without him.
AVERY BRADLEY: WORTH IT?
Much was made of Bradley’s four-year, $32 million extension over the summer, but after a slow start the (still only) 24-year-old has emerged as a leader of the C’s inspired effort in recent weeks. The longest-tenured member of the Celtics, he has averaged 16.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.0 steals since the arrival of fellow Tacoma, Wash., native Isaiah Thomas. With willing defenders Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder joining him in the backcourt and on the wing, he’s also returned to the sort of on-ball dominance for which he made his bones.
The absence of Thomas, who rested his sore lower back and elbow, seemed bound to catch up with the Celtics when the game got tight and baskets were harder to come by. His ability to knock down 3-pointers and get to the free-throw line has been the key to closing out games. So, without him, the C’s resorted to a closer-by-committee approach. Six different Celtics scored in the fourth quarter, including Phil Pressey, who collected five points and two assists in place of the injured Thomas. Somehow, the C’s pulled out a win against the second-best team in the Western Conference without their best player.