MEMPHIS — On Sunday, for the first time as an NBA player, Marcus Smart watched the Celtics during a game in which he was not employed by them. The Grizzlies guard was in street clothes, sidelined by an ankle injury, but the game’s chaotic, turbulent finish felt like one of the wild nights Smart often had his fingerprints on during his nine seasons in Boston.
In the end, Kristaps Porzingis blocked Ziaire Williams’s last second-jumper and helped the Celtics escape with a 102-100 win against this severely undermanned Memphis team that has just three wins all season.
The Celtics (11-2), who have now won six games in a row and still own the NBA’s best record, eked out a similarly tense win against the Raptors on Friday. After that win, coach Joe Mazzulla was upbeat, expressing pride in his team for finding a way on a night in which not everything had bounced its way.
Although Sunday ended with yet another win, the mood was sterner. Mazzulla acknowledged that the Grizzlies had played harder than the Celtics, and he said Memphis deserved to win.
“Listen,” he said, “we got lucky to win that game.”
Porzingis, whose strong play was one of the lone bright spots for Boston, said it is possible that the Celtics are beginning to assume that they will eventually find a way to win no matter what, and that approach can be dangerous, even if it has heretofore mostly proven true.
“Let’s see how we bounce back,” he said.
Then Porzingis stopped himself, realizing that despite the sense of unease, the ending had ultimately been triumphant.
“Not bounce back,” he said. “We won.”
With a different bounce here or there, the final result would have been different, however.
The Grizzlies did most of the things opponents must do to keep the Celtics off balance. They forced 17 turnovers, muscled in 21 second-chance points, and kept Celtics stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown from taking over.
One game after Tatum went just 1 for 11 from the 3-point line, he did not attempt one until 7 minutes, 29 seconds remained. It went in, but he never took another.
Tatum, who had taken at least five 3-pointers in every game this season, shrugged off the unusual shot profile, saying it was simply a result of the game’s flow. But his eight turnovers — including four offensive fouls — were more costly.
With the Celtics clinging to a 102-100 lead, Tatum missed a tough, contested 22-foot fadeaway with 18 seconds left. Derrick White grabbed the rebound, however, and the shot clock reset to 14 seconds with just 15 seconds remaining, putting the Grizzlies in a very bad spot.
White dribbled the ball toward midcourt and gently handed it to Tatum, who briefly leaned over as if he was prepared to absorb a foul.
But then he zipped a pass to Jrue Holiday, who was cutting through the lane, and Holiday went up for a dunk but missed.
“At the end of the game you have to make the layup or get fouled,” Mazzulla said. “That’s just how it is.”
The lively crowd was pulsing, and the Grizzlies went on the attack.
Jon Konchar carved through the lane and found a wide open Santi Aldama — who had already hit seven 3-pointers — trailing the play on the left arc. But his shot caromed off the back rim.
Williams chased down the rebound on the left wing, turned and tried to fire an 18-footer over the 7-foot-3-inch Porzingis, but Porzingis sent it back, his sixth and biggest block of the night. As Williams lay on his back, he put both arms in the air, wondering why a foul had not been called.
Porzingis then angrily gestured toward Williams to get up. He later apologized.
“I’m feeling like, ‘Oh, man, all these calls are going against me and then he’s asking for that one when I cleanly blocked him?’ " Porzingis said. “I just kind of reacted to that, but a little bit too much. But nothing but respect to Williams and the whole team. They played hard and pushed us.”
Porzingis finished with 26 points and eight rebounds, keeping afloat a Boston offense that needed more from its other stars. Sam Hauser continued his stretch of scorching shooting by coming off the bench and drilling five 3-pointers.
Hauser was on the floor during an unusual stretch to end the third quarter, when the Celtics played the final 7:10 without Tatum, Brown or Holiday.
Mazzulla said he is still looking to help the second unit develop an identity, and that is ultimately one of the purposes of this time of year. He was also aware that Boston was playing the first game of a back-to-back set.
With Derrick White leading the way, that group ultimately played Memphis even. Then the stars returned for the fourth, and when the Celtics held Memphis scoreless for nearly four minutes early in the period, it looked as if the rest and refocus would be enough.
But the Grizzlies made their push.
“I don’t think we took them lightly,” Mazzulla said. “But I think they played harder than us, for sure.”