MEMPHIS — Marcus Smart argued with referee James Williams during a stoppage. He led a timeout during another. Between the first and second quarters — he turned to David Roddy and showed him how to position himself. Smart hardly sat down despite wearing a walking boot on his freshly injured left foot, and while absent between the lines, Smart’s presence on the sideline became hard to ignore in a game originally touted as his revenge game against Boston. As did his influence over how Memphis played his former team.
“I think in the pre-game talk, he talked for 10 minutes straight,” Grizzlies forward Santi Aldama told CLNS Media. “He knows these guys. Obviously, he’s a guy that studies a lot of film, but he played there for 9-10 years and he knows them better than anybody, probably better than themselves. He gave us a lot of insight, especially guarding Jayson, who’s a great player, backs down smaller defenders into the post and then has all these tricks. So really trying to see how to guard them without fouling. Obviously, having Marcus himself is a privilege, but having him playing against Boston, I think that gave us a better chance at winning this game.”
Aldama made a spot start for the first time this season as Memphis played three bigs and disrupted Boston with aggressive switching in a game that dragged into the mud in Smart’s style. Jayson Tatum committed eight turnovers, the officials called 40 fouls and the Celtics only generated 31 three-point attempts. Tatum didn’t take one until late in the fourth quarter, a decisive pull-up he nearly squandered by hitting a cutting Jrue Holiday with nine seconds remaining for a dunk ahead by two points. Holiday missed his dunk attempt and Smart impression, allowing Aldama to shoot a three for the win in the other direction that he missed before Kristaps Porziņģis blocked Ziaire Williams’ put-back attempt to secure a 102-100 win.
Alongside Smart, who’ll miss 3-5 weeks with his ankle ailment, the Grizzlies entered without Steven Adams (knee), Brandon Clarke (achilles), Ja Morant (suspension), Jake LaRavia (eye), Derrick Rose (knee), Xavier Tillman (knee) and Luke Kennard (knee), a staggering assortment of talent that formerly composed one of the best teams in the west. It marked the first time this season the Celtics truly played down to opposing competition, an assessment Porziņģis admitted to that Joe Mazzulla couched as a lack of discipline. He did, however, rip Boston’s execution on the final play.
“I mean listen, we got lucky to win that game,” he said. “You can learn from losses, you can learn from wins. Sometimes you’re ok with the loss, because you did some right things. Sometimes you’re pissed, because you didn’t deserve to win and I didn’t think we deserved to win the game because of a lot of the stuff that we did. At the end of the game there, you either have to make the layup, or you have to get fouled … credit to the Grizzlies for the way they played. I thought they just outplayed us at times … you have to go through stuff, I can’t have the expectation of perfection … I’m not happy about it. I was happy with the way the game went in Toronto. Tonight, I’m not happy about it, but I understand it’s going to happen.”
Porziņģis paced the offense early with a dunk and tough face-up mid range shot that beat the shot clock. He blocked Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane, finishing with five rejections, and the short-handed Grizzlies looked overwhelmed down 8-2. That didn’t last, Aldama answering with a three before Bane shook loose for a pull-up two and up-faked against Derrick White’s shot contest, sending him out of play before Bane hit one of two back-to-back threes for the lead. Bane, who hit 7-of-14 from deep, led the Grizzlies offense following the lineup shake-up by Taylor Jenkins. Boston lost track of Aldama throughout a game of defensive breakdowns. He scored 28 points on 11-for-27 shooting (6-15 3PT).
Sam Hauser hit the only Celtics threes of the first half, hitting his first four tries while Boston’s other players started 0-for-10 from deep into the third quarter. His first look came off a Porziņģis scramble for the rebound underneath like the one that followed to end the quarter where Tatum missed two put-backs. Porziņģis chased down Bane after the misses and blocked him before Aldama’s cutting baseline dunk gave Memphis a lead into the second. Boston responded by finding Hauser twice rotation for threes, but effortless runs back in transition and shot contests led to a play where Aldama missed, grabbed his own miss against Porziņģis, then dished to Bane for a wide open two that sent Mazzulla to half court calling timeout.
“He’s a real competitor,” Porziņģis said. “He has a real edge to him. He wants to win everything. He wants to be the best. He wants to push us … he definitely showed some emotion and I think we needed it at that moment.”
Three straight stops and four scores, including a Tatum post-up, pushed the Celtics ahead 50-40 out of timeout, then a successful Grizzlies challenge, two shots following offensive rebound and a Bane three after shaking Holiday kept Memphis within three at the half. The Celtics opened the second half losing Bismack Biyombo in pick-and-roll coverage, struggling to contain Bane’s attack and with Jaylen Brown picking up a technical and allowing John Konchar to dunk in transition while complaining about a no-call.
Mazzulla sat Brown, Tatum and Holiday for the final seven minutes of the third and called on Neemias Queta in place of Porziņģis, who picked up four fouls. Mazzulla later said he wanted to experiment and find some rhythm in the front half of the back-to-back. Lamar Stevens made a two-minute appearance in the fourth.
White and Hauser pushed the Celtics ahead by nine, but the Grizzlies’ bench elated Smart and the crowd with a run back within 83-82 into the fourth quarter by attacking the offensive glass, running and driving. Vince Williams Jr. hit key shots off the bench. Jackson Jr. hit a go-ahead three. Boston almost fell behind by multiple possessions before Holiday grabbed Porziņģis’ missed hook shot and dumped to Brown cutting downhill.
Tatum hit his first three and stole the ball from Konchar to score in transition and go back up six. Aldama and Bane gave Memphis one more chance with threes before a behind-the-back turnover and forced three squandered it while Porziņģis closed with four straight points and the decisive block. Jenkins, Smart and the Memphis sideline tried to appeal for a foul, attempting a challenge they couldn’t call.
Mazzulla knew how invaluable Smart’s defensive insight could be from their conversations when he first joined the coaching staff. It kept Sunday’s win close and unsatisfying. Memphis walked away encouraged, batting in a back-to-back after a 2-9 start. Smart sees it as a new challenge.
For Brown and Tatum, who reflected on highs-and-lows with their former teammate with Brown saying he couldn’t stand Smart at first, they found themselves frustrated by the defensive tactics he used to employ on them. Not allowing Boston to play below screens they set on offense, playing into and attached to the body to limit three-pointers and pushing. That almost led to Boston’s first slip-up.
“Unfortunate timing, I thought Marcus was finding his stride,” Jenkins said. “(We were) trying to learn where Marcus is successful on both sides of the floor. I thought he was doing a really good job play-making wise, trying to build chemistry with his teammates. I think he’s done a great job off the court with those guys, dinners, having them play cards, hanging out together on the plane. His voice has really made an impact with this group in a positive way … his competitiveness is a thing I always lean into. I think he’s got a competitive fire in practice, in the film sessions, the knowledge he brings, the experience level that he’s brought and obviously the struggles that we’re having. He’s just got an even-keel about him. He knows what we’ve gotta do every day, preparation-wise. He’s keeping the guys focused on the big picture, which is sometimes hard … he’s really led by example.”