The Memphis Grizzlies came to TD Garden with their gaudy 45-18 record that had mostly been constructed in the unforgiving Western Conference. The Celtics came to TD Garden without their new hero, Isaiah Thomas, whose bruised back was so sore that it would have been too painful for him to even sit on the bench’s padded chairs.
So coach Brad Stevens’s approach was, out of necessity, rather simple.
“The deal tonight was, ‘Can you be in it with a chance?’ ” Stevens said.
He was referring to the fourth quarter, to the end. The Celtics stuck with the Grizzlies throughout, never allowing their lead to swell beyond 4 points. And then the end arrived, and then the Celtics had more than a chance. They had confidence and momentum and, ultimately, an unlikely victory.
Guard Avery Bradley, who returned to the lineup after missing three games with a sprained elbow, drilled a 21-foot jump shot with 7.9 seconds left, sealing Boston’s 95-92 win on Wednesday night.
In this game, Bradley had the final moment. But this Celtics team is comfortable knowing that the final basket could have come from anyone.
“People are just making big shots,” Bradley said, “because they have confidence.”
Bradley said that in the locker room afterward, players noted how competitive they have been since the All-Star break.
Aside from a blowout loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, they have mostly been in games at the end. They have mostly had a chance, and their 7-5 record since the break has kept them in the playoff discussion.
They have rallied around Thomas, their fearless point guard who was acquired on Feb. 19. But they have also developed their identity as a group, and that is fitting.
“We all stepped up,” forward Jae Crowder said, “because we knew we had a soldier down.”
The Grizzlies led, 88-85, before a 26-foot 3-pointer by Crowder tied the score with 1 minute, 40 seconds left.
At the other end, the Celtics forced Zach Randolph into a difficult shot inside, which he missed. But the burly forward corralled the rebound and ultimately scored with 52.2 seconds left.
The Celtics called a timeout, and Stevens — whose play-calling acumen has been on full display recently — drew up an important set. Evan Turner was to fire a pass to Kelly Olynyk, who would be flashing near the top of the key.
But first, Stevens wanted his team to explore a more risky option. He wanted Turner to see if a 30-foot alley-oop to Marcus Smart was available.
“Have confidence,” Stevens told Turner in the huddle. “If the pass is open, throw it.”
Smart got a step on Courtney Lee. The pass was precise, and Smart’s finish — as he absorbed contact from Lee — was perfect. The ensuing free throw gave the Celtics a 91-90 lead.
Grizzlies forward Jeff Green then missed a difficult shot inside, and Tyler Zeller grabbed the rebound. Even though there were 39 seconds left and it was a 1-point game, Memphis seemed in a rush to foul.
Zeller made both free throws to stretch the lead t0 93-90. A basket by Green cut the deficit to 1 before Bradley took care of the rest. He planned to drive to the basket, but when the Grizzlies switched defensively on Zeller’s screen, he sensed an opening for the jump shot.
When Mike Conley’s potential tying 3-pointer missed at the buzzer, the fans at TD Garden roared and pumped their fists in the air. Strangers slapped five as they filed up the aisles and into the night.
The Celtics were well aware of the Grizzlies’ stature, but they also didn’t view this win — even without Thomas — as a stunning development.
“We’re here to grind, too,” Smart said.
Bradley finished with 17 points and five rebounds to lead the Celtics. Crowder added 16 points and Olynyk had 15.
Marc Gasol and Randolph, who have combined to average 34.5 points and 19.3 rebounds this season, were held to 23 and 15 on Wednesday.
Those figures are particularly noteworthy because the Celtics’ post players are not known as physical intimidators.
But in this game, they took their turns collapsing on Gasol and Randolph, and Crowder turned into a kind of roving double-teamer, hurrying into the paint whenever he felt his teammates needed him.
“I wanted to keep Gasol and Randolph off-balance as much as possible,” Crowder said. “[My teammates] know how I play. They know how I like to gamble.”