BOSTON — Mike Conley was making the Celtics look silly. Less than eight minutes into the game, the Grizzlies point guard had 10 points — just one point less than the entire Celtics team — and it looked like it was only going to get worse for Boston.
When the first quarter was over and the Grizzlies held a commanding 27-13 lead, the Celtics looked finished — and Conley appeared to be on his way to a career night with 10 points and three assists.
The Grizzlies did get the win, holding on for a 100-93 victory, but Conley’s statistical explosion never materialized as it could have. He ended up with 14 points and nine assists for a solid night’s work, but not the personal record-setting one he was on pace for after 12 minutes. Much of that had to do with a tweak Celtics coach Brad Stevens made, according to Jared Sullinger.
“Defensively, Brad made a great adjustment by blitzing ball screens and not letting Conley be comfortable off the ball screen,” Sullinger said. “I thought that was a huge adjustment and that kind of sparked our fire and made them play a little faster than they wanted to. It kind of helped us on the offensive end because once we played faster on the defensive end, it forced us to [play fast] on the offensive end.”
Conley wasn’t the only Memphis player the Celtics bottled up in the last three quarters. With the Grizzlies’ lead playmaker shut off, the Celtics outscored the Grizzlies as a team 80-73 the rest of the way. It nearly paid off with a victory thanks to Sullinger’s fourth-quarter explosion.
Sullinger sparked the Celtics’ rally in the fourth quarter, when they nearly overcame a 15-point deficit with 7:29 left to pull within three points on a 3-pointer by Avery Bradley with 14 seconds remaining. But Stevens was careful to spread the credit around even though Sullinger, with 17 points in the fourth quarter, clearly was the one who made most of it possible.
“All of them played” to the end, Stevens said. “The different in the game was the first quarter. even when we were down 15 with three minutes to go, that was the different in the game. So the willingness to fight is not something that I necessarily think we should single out as unique. It should be the way that you go about your business all the time. That’s what this group, for the most part, has done in almost every game, with very, very few exceptions.”
The Celtics should have another fight on their hands on Friday, after a day off to enjoy the holiday. The Cavaliers come to town on a four-game losing streak, having so far failed to live up to lofty preseason expectations. Kyrie Irving and the gang will be ill-tempered and looking for a team that will roll over and let them get back in the win column, because that may be the only type of team the Cavs can beat right now.
The Celtics just have to make sure that’s not them.