MEMPHIS — If you wanted to see this Celtics season in a nutshell, why they are so maddening and yet fascinating at the same time, their 48-minute performance at FedEx Forum was a masterpiece of an example.
They stumbled in the first 24 minutes, allowing the offensively challenged Grizzlies to score 64 points and hit 83.3 percent of their 2-point attempts. It was one of the more putrid efforts of the season.
And just when it seemed as if they would lay down, succumb to yet another quality opponent, they turned into the NBA Final-contending Celtics, stifling Memphis defensively while hitting pivotal shot after pivotal shot.
Finally, Al Horford clinched the rally from a 19-point deficit with a pair of 3-pointers and the Celtics ran away with a perfect second half in a 112-103 win.
Boston outscored Memphis, 65-39, in the final two quarters.
The first and second halves were so dramatically different that the Celtics walked away befuddled at why they only seem to flourish when faced with adversity. One of the surprise teams in the league this season, the Grizzlies dominated the first 24 minutes, bullying the Celtics with their physicality.
Memphis (18-17) used its veterans Mike Conley and Marc Gasol along with youngsters Jaren Jackson and Dillon Brooks, to stagger the Celtics with ball movement and timely shooting. Conley’s runner with 2.4 seconds left extended the halftime lead to 64-47.
Kyrie Irving and coach Brad Stevens offered a few words at the break.
“Kyrie just challenged all of us to be better,” Horford said. “And coach as well. I feel like we came out with better energy, played much harder and also at the start of the fourth, I felt like that group that was in there with Jaylen Brown, Guerschon [Yabusele], their energy was great and put us in that position to take over the game late.”
Gasol’s layup extended the Memphis lead to 74-55 and the Celtics were frustrated, having played with maximum effort to open the half but getting no breaks. Marcus Morris, Irving, and Gordon Hayward helped chip the lead down to 8 after the third period.
A 12-3 run, sparked by a flying Irving layup, gave the Celtics their first lead since early in the second quarter.
“It wasn’t so much a challenge,” Irving said of his halftime speech. “I felt like we were pretty solid, it’s just making it a little bit more difficult in the second half. But offensively, we felt like they were trying to take the ball out of my hands and you saw the opportunities open up in the second half just being more active off the ball.”
When asked if it was maddening to see just how rastically different the Celtics can look in one game, Irving said: “I don’t think it’s maddening, there’s still so much for us to learn. I think we had 14 points in the middle of the third in the paint and we ended with 36. It just shows you the sense of urgency when you have the game on the line and you’re trying to win it back, you take the obvious 2s.
“You don’t take the shots out of convenience, you take the ones you know for sure, you’re going to get. Just little things like that, game management and getting better.”
The numbers show in the second half, the Celtics attempted 18 3-pointers of their 42 attempts but were more selective. They didn’t settle for contested looks, instead opting for open looks of the flow of the offense. Only a Terry Rozier pull-up 3-pointer off a fastbreak — which missed — was the lone questionable 3-point attempt of the half.
“We just kind of hit singles on our way back and that was a good thing to do on the road against a good team,” Stevens said. “I didn’t think our offense, attention to detail, or physicality was enough in the first half, and it turned up with 20 minutes to go. We got some loose balls. We got some runouts, got down the floor, made some shots, felt better about ourselves, and gave ourselves a chance.”
The Grizzlies shot 30.8 percent in the second half and committed 10 turnovers. They struggled to score against the Boston defense, often waiting until late in the shot clock to attack the basket. Memphis coach J.B. Bickerstaff focused on a key play in the game, when Conley drove to the basket and was ripped by Irving, which led to a fast break and a Hayward layup for a 100-97 Celtics lead with 2:13 left. Bickerstaff thought it was an obvious foul.
“It’s clear as day, Mike Conley drives to the basket, he baits the defender, they slap on his arm, we don’t get the call,” Bickerstaff said. “We didn’t play perfect but that was a huge missed call. I think it’s been a running theme in the conversations that we’ve had about the fouls that Mike Conley gets that aren’t blown. Mike Conley is one of the class acts in the NBA. He deserves the respect of the officials. Tonight was a classic case of it, where the whistle wasn’t blown for in in a crucial moment of the game.”