It’s easy to lock in on Al Horford’s scoring down the stretch as being the key to Boston’s most recently victory, a 105-95 win at Miami.
But lost in the late-game buckets were a number of game-altering plays that often go unnoticed, like the balls Amir Johnson kept alive that led to Celtics baskets or the tracking down loose balls that lead to baskets which were part of a long line of effort plays made by the Celtics that contributed to them winning their second game in a row.
“Those are winning plays to me,” Boston’s Avery Bradley said following Sunday’s win. “We need to keep doing that.”
He’s right, especially if they want to extend their winning streak to three in a row when they travel to Memphis for a Tuesday night matchup against the Grizzlies (18-11) which has lost three of their last four games.
Boston has benefited from some timely setbacks in their last two games.
In the Celtics’ 96-88 win over Charlotte on Friday, Boston faced the Hornets who were playing without former UConn star Kemba Walker who was not with the team for personal reasons.
He returned to the Charlotte lineup in the Hornet’s 107-99 win at Atlanta on Saturday, finishing with a double-double of 18 points and 10 assists.
And on Sunday, Boston faced a Heat team that had lost six of its last eight games and was playing without Wayne Ellington (hamstring) who is one of the team’s better perimeter shooters.
The Celtics will not be as fortunate on Tuesday against a Memphis squad that has had Mike Conley who suffered a lower back injury that was supposed to sideline him until sometime in January.
But he returned to the Grizzlies lineup at the end of last week and appears to be gradually working himself back into shape.
Despite Memphis being a stiffer challenge now, the Celtics go into the game with the kind of confidence they’ll need in order to pull off the upset.
Here are five takeaways from Sunday’s win at Miami that could come into play when the Celtics return to the floor on Tuesday at Memphis.
SMART’S EVOLUTION AS A POINT GUARD
The more he plays, the more his growth into being a playmaker reveals itself. Some of the most important plays in the fourth quarter of Boston’s 105-95 win at Miami on Sunday were fueled by Smart making – no pun intended – the smart play with the ball. He finished with six points, six rebounds and four assists, two of which were to Al Horford down the stretch. “Marcus made a couple of great reads off the side pick-and-roll there,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. Avery Bradley echoed similar sentiments: “He made some great plays for our team,” Bradley told reporters on Sunday.
HORFORD’S LATE-GAME STRIDES
Al Horford has had games this season when he scored more points, but is imprint on Sunday’s win was on a level you would come to expect from a guy who has $113 million coming his way over the next four years. He was at his best when the game truly mattered in the fourth quarter, getting clutch buckets in the final minutes. It would serve as part of an 11-point fourth quarter which was tops among all Celtics (including Isaiah Thomas who had 10 fourth-quarter points before being ejected following a flagrant-2 foul when his elbow landed just below the eye of Justise Winslow.
BRADLEY REMAINS ROAD WARRIOR
There’s an old basketball adage that says in the playoffs, sooner or later you have to win on the road. For the Celtics and Avery Bradley, that can be a good thing. Because this season, Bradley continues to be a better road scorer than he is at home. He’s averaging 19.6 points on the road this season compared to 15.7 at home. And those road points come on 51.6 percent which is tops in the NBA on the road. The discrepancy is consistent with his career averages on the road (12.7) and at home (11.2).
TIME OFF GOOD FOR CELTICS, THOMAS
Isaiah Thomas missed four games with a right groin injury, but the time on the sidelines also helped many of his other aches and pains heal. In the two games he has been back, Thomas has averaged 24.5 points, 4.5 assists and 2.5rebounds while shooting 51.4 percent from the field and 45.4 percent from 3-point range. And despite being ejected with 3:02 to play on Sunday, he still managed to score 10 points in the fourth quarter. “I like the fourth quarter and my teammates put me in position to be successful in that quarter and be aggressive and make plays,” Thomas said. “I just feed off of them.”
DEFENSIVE IDENTITY TAKING SHAPE
Arguably the biggest takeaway from the Celtics was that down the stretch, it was their defense that once again came to the rescue when they were called upon to step up. After Isaiah Thomas was ejected for landing an elbow just below Justise Winslow’s eye, the Heat immediately went on an 8-0 run that cut Boston’s lead to 97-93 with 1:48 to play. Boston’s defense clamped down to close out the game with an 8-2 run in part by not allowing another field goal to be made by Miami. And making that final push even sweeter was that it came with Isaiah Thomas out of the game, the one Celtic this season who has consistently played well down the stretch for Boston. “We did a good job of moving on to the next play, try and finish the game,” Jae Crowder told reporters following Sunday’s win.