There were a plethora of excuses the Celtics could have used yesterday against the Grizzlies at TD Garden.
There was the early start time on Super Bowl Sunday, and a possible letdown after a thrilling and emotional victory over the Knicks Friday night. There also was the fact that the Celtics have been troubled mightily by athletic teams, and the Grizzlies won at the Garden the past two years.
Ignoring those obstacles and continuing their surge, the Celtics rather easily disposed of the Grizzlies, with the offensive production of Kevin Garnett, a defense that stifled Memphis for all but a six-minute stretch, and the help of a bench that suddenly has become productive.
The 98-80 win offered little intrigue down the stretch and allowed most of the 18,624 on hand, many sporting Patriots jerseys, to head early to their Super Bowl parties. The Celtics took care of business early for their eighth win in nine games.
Garnett led the way with 24 points, including his third 3-pointer in three games, while Rajon Rondo had 14 assists in his second game back from his wrist injury. Yet the standout was rookie JaJuan Johnson, who replaced Brandon Bass, who missed the game with a sore left knee. Johnson contributed 10 points in 22 minutes, giving the Celtics some rare athleticism on a team of methodical veterans.
The Grizzlies are an emerging bunch in the Western Conference and have given the Celtics issues with their up-tempo style combined with the play of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. But Randolph has missed the past month with a torn right knee ligament, and the Celtics were able to neutralize Gasol and Marreese Speights, who combined for 5-for-24 shooting.
So Memphis was relegated to Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo going one-on-one, and the Celtics gobbled up the duo with their collapsing defense. Memphis shot just 36.8 percent from the field and eclipsed the 20-point mark in only one quarter as the Celtics were fueled by their bench.
“Yeah, our bench was phenomenal today,’’ forward Paul Pierce said. “Really, Chris Wilcox came in at first and gave us a huge lift, and obviously JaJuan. I always talk to the younger guys and always tell them to be ready because it’s a long season and your number’s going to eventually get called at some point or another. And you have to be ready. And he’s shown that he’s getting better throughout the course of the year and staying ready, and it showed how comfortable he was. He’s learning the plays, he’s learning the system, and he really looked good.’’
Johnson was the team’s first-round pick, but he has watched college teammate and second-rounder E’Twaun Moore garner a larger role and more playing time. But with Bass out, Johnson was the second backup to Garnett and Jermaine O’Neal after Wilcox, who also added 12 points.
With Garnett 35 years old and O’Neal battling creaky knees, the Celtics desperately need athleticism in the frontcourt. Coach Doc Rivers raves about Johnson’s ability to run the floor and his jump shooting, but most of that has been reserved for garbage time.
“I think I really start with the preparation before the game, just putting up shots, gaining speed, just being ready to play,’’ Johnson said. “But no, I don’t think it’s too hard; once you run up and down a few times you kind of get into a little rhythm and go from there.’’
The first half was a game of runs with the teams exchanging 16-3 spurts. The Grizzlies used theirs to begin the second quarter and take a 32-27 lead, and the Celtics responded to end the half with theirs and took a 43-35 lead.
Memphis got as close as 67-61 with a Gay 6-0 run in the last two minutes of the third quarter, but Garnett countered with a dunk and the Celtics opened the fourth with a 21-7 surge to officially kick off the Super Bowl pregame festivities.
The relief was that the Celtics dealt with an athletic team early, something that would have been unlikely a month ago when most of the roster still was trying to catch its wind after a couple of full-court sprints. The Celtics never have been an above-average team athletically during the Big Three era; they would for the most part dispose of their opponents with execution.
They are beginning to regain some of that.
“I think a lot has to do with us getting healthy, and really just getting more and more games under our belt and just getting in better shape as a ballclub,’’ Pierce said. “[There was] just rust in the group at the beginning of the year. And [assistant coach] Armond [Hill] just kept referring back to when you don’t get your normal training camp, your normal preseason - and we’re an older team so we need that kind of tuneup coming into the season.
“And we probably used the first eight or 10 games as a tuneup when those games were counting. But I think now we’ve probably flicked the switch to where we’re playing more consistent ball, especially our defense, and our offense is coming along, too.’’