With Zion Williamson sidelined until making his debut Wednesday night, Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant had been the rookie who captivated the NBA over the first half of the season. He had mixed flash with substance to improbably guide the Grizzlies into a playoff position, potentially devaluing the future first-round pick Memphis owes Boston in the process.
But the Celtics take great pride in their defense, and they insist they are ready to take on new challenges whenever they arrive. Two nights after flustering LeBron James and the Lakers in a blowout, Boston on Wednesday shut down Morant more thoroughly than anyone has, limiting him to 2 points and 5 assists in a 119-95 romp.
Just a few days ago the Celtics were reeling. They had lost six of eight and were facing the NBA’s most powerful traveling road show, the Lakers. But angst can morph into optimism quickly. The Celtics have now won their last two games by a total of 56 points, and everything feels more stable again.
“I think we’re just kind of getting back to ourselves,” point guard Kemba Walker said, “realizing the way we’re playing wins. We play with great energy.”
The Celtics trailed, 42-35, before pummeling the Grizzlies with a 52-12 run that started in the second quarter and carried well into the third. The surge was keyed by defense.
Passing lanes were clogged and ball pressure was applied, both on the perimeter and when the Grizzlies tried to feed their hulking center, Jonas Valanciunas. During one stretch of nearly three minutes late in the second quarter, amid a 23-0 Boston run, the Grizzlies attempted just three shots, because so many other possessions ended without them even getting that far.
“We’ve pressured the ball better the past couple of games,” coach Brad Stevens said. “I do think we looked a little fresher.”
For the Celtics, health was the only real concern on this night. Jayson Tatum strained his groin when driving to the basket with about five minutes left in the third quarter. He stayed at Boston’s end of the floor in some pain while the Celtics played defense for a possession without him, and then they quickly called time out after getting the ball back, and Tatum limped to the locker room.
The level of worry lowered after that, though. Tatum walked back out to the court still in uniform and watched most of the fourth quarter from the bench. He did not even have a visible limp when he went back to the locker room after the game, even stopping to take off his sneakers and give them to a fan. Tatum was not available to speak to reporters, but Stevens was optimistic.
“It didn’t sound like it was too bad,” Stevens said. “I’m not too concerned about it. He’ll get a test tonight, just to make sure. We’ll figure out more tomorrow when we travel [to Orlando].”
Also, backup center Enes Kanter suffered a lower-body injury diving for a ball in the fourth quarter. He eventually limped to the locker room, too, but was all smiles later, jokingly saying that’s what he gets for diving for a ball. He said that for now he thinks he will be questionable for Friday’s game against the Magic.
Jaylen Brown missed Wednesday’s game because of an ankle sprain, and many of the Celtics’ mild ruts this season have come when the team is missing at least one key piece. But on this night it was not an issue.
In the 26 minutes he played before he was injured, Tatum had 23 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists. Walker and Gordon Hayward combined to go 0 for 10 in the first half, a stat line that would generally result in something ghoulish for the Celtics, especially with Brown out.
But in this case, the Celtics held a 58-44 lead at the break anyway, thanks to Tatum’s 21 points and 12 from Daniel Theis, who made all three of his 3-pointers in the half.
Hayward and Walker started scoring again in the third quarter, and it became clear around that time that Memphis simply did not have a chance.
“When we’re moving from side to side, moving bodies, moving the ball, I think we’re pretty tough to guard,” Hayward said. “But more than anything, I think when we’re able to get stops and we can run in transition, that’s when we’re really, really lethal.”
New challenges await, however. The Celtics will now go on a three-game trip that includes matchups against the Magic, Pelicans, and Heat. Orlando gave Boston fits last season, New Orleans just welcomed back Williamson, and Miami has the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
“I think losing games definitely refocuses you and reenergizes you,” Hayward said. “The best teams don’t have to lose games for that to happen. So we have to bring energy ourselves, especially on the road.”