Celtics cruise to third straight win behind 25 points from Kyrie Irving, hold off Memphis 109-98

Celtics win their third straight back from All-Star break to improve to 43-19.

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Kyrie Irving was in total control Monday night against Memphis. (Boston Celtics)

BOSTON — The rebuilding Memphis Grizzlies made it a game at the start and the end Monday night. Kyrie Irving took care of everything in between.

Irving scored 21 of his team-high 25 points in the first half while the Celtics (43-19) connected on 8-of-11 from beyond the arc in the opening quarter in a 109-98 win over Memphis Monday night at TD Garden.

It was Boston’s third straight win since the All-Star break and keeps them a half-game behind Toronto (42-17) for top seed in the East. Toronto beat Detroit Monday.

“Our focus level and getting everyone back,” Irving said. “Just knowing what we’re trying to get ready for.”

The rebuilding Grizzlies lost their 10th straight and fell to 18-41 on the season. For a full box score, click here.

The start of the game was once again Irving, who drilled five of his first six from beyond the arc in the first half as part of his 21-point first half.

By the time he hit two shots from the free throw line with 2:49 left in the second quarter, the crowd already began its “M-V-P” chants for Irving. And to think Memphis, with Marc Gasol returning to the lineup, actually scored the game’s first five points.

The Grizzlies were hanging tough, trailing just 27-24 late in the first quarter when Brad Stevens went with all reserves, featuring Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Daniel Theis and Semi Ojeleye. That group of five manage to outscore Memphis 23-6 and put the game hopelessly out of reach.

What has changed since the break?

“Our whole mindset. Before break we played just bad defensively,” Theis said. “Since we came back we tried to bring back our defense from earlier and the middle of the season. The last quarter today we didn’t play defense, but like the second quarter showed what we’re capable when everyone is engaged.

“I would say because we are playing consistently again. We have got to keep doing this, we only have twenty games left. We gave up a lot of games, especially at home. It was five or six and that just can’t happen.”

The first half ended appropriately enough, with Marcus Morris draining a three from the left side at the buzzer, putting the Celtics up 67-41 heading to the locker room. The Celtics shot a blistering 11-of-22 from beyond the arc. But just as impressive was the defensive effort, as the Grizzlies struggled badly to get any quality shots up.

But the big story of the half was the red-hot Irving, electrifying the crowd with highlight-reel moves like the one he put on the trio of Myke Henry, JaMychal Green and Deyonta Davis.

Memphis came out of halftime to score the first eight points and cut the lead to 67-49 before Irving stopped the run. Jayson Tatum followed with a three and the lead was back to 23 at 72-49.

As good as the Celtics bench was in the second quarter, it struggled badly at the end of the third, as Memphis ended the quarter with a 9-0 run and outscored the Celtics 28-19 in the quarter. Still, Boston led 86-69 heading into the fourth.

“I thought the difference was the second quarter,” Brad Stevens said. “I didn’t think we were great for a large portion of the game, but we were really, really good in that second quarter. So, you know, I think that we’ve been a little bit more consistent in our prep and our focus and just kind of getting ready to compete and all that stuff – and then we’ve just played a little bit better.

“Maybe that’s because we were not fresh; maybe we’re a lot fresher than we were. I don’t know – but for whatever reason. I think the game on Wednesday night, with the way Charlotte’s playing, will be a good test for us to see if we’re improving and if we’re getting better because I think they’re playing really well.”

Any doubt in the final result was all but quashed when Jaylen Brown went coast-to-coast after a steal, spinning around after crossing midcourt before going in uncontested for a one-handed slam and a 92-71 lead with 9:50 left.

Still, the Celtics looked flat while the Grizzlies kept fighting. JaMychal Green’s basket with 4:52 left made it 98-83 Boston. Marc Gasol’s jumper cut Boston’s lead to 13, 100-87, with 3:30 left.

The Celtics continue their run against sub-.500 teams on Wednesday when they host the Charlotte Hornets at TD Garden at 7:30 p.m. The Celtics then head out on a three-game trip through Houston, Chicago and Minnesota.