BOSTON — The Celtics have 19 games remaining on their regular-season schedule. They’re not going to win them all.
But as they proved Wednesday night against a hard-nosed Memphis Grizzlies team, any victory over this Boston squad will not come easy.
The Celtics knocked off the Grizzlies, who had blown them out earlier this season, 95-92 in a game neither team ever led by more than eight points. Memphis has built its reputation — and its 45-19 record; good for second-best in the Western Conference — on winning these types of tight contests, but Boston stood up to its brand of smash-mouth basketball and punched right back.
Rookie point guard Marcus Smart helped secure the win with an and-one alley-oop in the final minute, and after the final buzzer sounded, he issued a message to the rest of the league.
“We?re here to grind, too,” Smart said. “At this time in the season, the wins now, they?re not going to be pretty. You?ve got to get in there. It?s going to be a dogfight, and the toughest team that?s going to grind it out the most is going to win.”
That was a common sentiment throughout the locker room after Boston’s seventh home win in eight tries. The latest arguably was the most impressive given not only the quality of the opponent, but also the fact that the Celtics’ top offensive threat, point guard Isaiah Thomas, wasn’t even in the building. Thomas was sidelined as he recovers from a bruised lower back.
The Celtics managed without their leading scorer, thanks in large part to the return of guard Avery Bradley, who celebrated the end of a three-game absence by scoring a team-high 17 points. Bradley was woeful from 3-point range (1-for-8) but otherwise lights-out, capping off a 7-for-9 showing from inside the arc with a long jumper over Grizzlies center Marc Gasol that iced the game with 7.9 seconds remaining.
“Right when it left my hand, I knew it was in” Bradley said. “I could feel it. … I feel like we just out-executed them, and we out-grinded them, and that?s why we got the win.”
After beginning the season with collapse after collapse, the Celtics finally are proving they know how to win. They’ve now knocked off two of the NBA’s top three teams in the Grizzlies and Atlanta Hawks in the last month alone, and taken another, the Golden State Warriors, down to the wire on two occasions.
Save for the 110-79 debacle earlier this month in Cleveland, Boston has not lost a game by more than eight points since Jan. 28.
“I feel like (our confidence) is at a high level,” Bradley said. “We were just talking, and we’ve really been in every game except the Cleveland game after the All-Star break. That shows that we’re making strides and continuing to be a better team.”
That better team now can smell the playoffs. The dogfight has begun.
Thumbnail photo via Elise Amendola/The Associated Press