All season long — and, really, for the last half-dozen years — the Memphis Grizzlies have made their bones by buckling down late in close games. When the game’s in the balance, the Grizz tighten up, execute, grind out possessions and, more often than not, come away with the W.
On Tuesday night, though, the typically workmanlike Grizzlies came undone in the second half, blowing a 17-point lead because the NBA’s No. 1-ranked defense absolutely, positively could not stop the smallest dude on the court.
After scoring eight first-half points to pace a putrid offensive showing that had the Celtics down 14 points at intermission, Isaiah Thomas went berserk.
According to Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe, Thomas’ second-half rampage stemmed from a frank halftime conversation headlined by some classic reverse psychology:
On a night like this, digging out of a hole on the road against the top-ranked defense in the NBA, the Celtics would need something unusual, something special. So assistant coach Jerome Allen sidled up to point guard Isaiah Thomas in the locker room and told him he might need to score 40 points for the Celtics to win. And that seemed like quite a bit to ask considering Thomas had just 8 points at the time.
Then Allen reversed course, surely knowing the dismissiveness might drive Thomas, or even irk him.
“Never mind,” Allen said. “You’re not built to get 40.”
Allen was right about that. Thomas was built to get 44, actually — a new career-high for the sixth-year pro, which propelled the Celtics to a 112-109 overtime victory at FedEx Forum that stands as perhaps Boston’s best win of the season.
The All-Star point guard got warmed up with some downhill pick-and-roll attacking and catch-and-shoot jumpers, and he never cooled down. He scored 36 points after halftime, breaking Boston out of its offensive funk, knocking the Grizzlies back on their heels and changing the game — and, maybe, the shape of the season for a Celtics team that, due to a variety of injuries and spates of ineffective play, has yet to live up to lofty preseason expectations, and had yet to win a game against an opponent with a winning percentage of .540 or better. (Memphis entered Tuesday at 18-11, a .620 winning percentage.)
Thomas went 10-for-16 from the field, including a 7-for-10 mark from 3-point land, and a perfect 17-for-17 from the stripe in 38 minutes of work. No player in Celtics history had ever made that many freebies without a single miss, and Thomas became just 14th player in the last 33 seasons to score 40 or more points on 16 or fewer shots. The last to pull it off was also a Celtic; Paul Pierce went for 40 on 13-for-16 shooting in a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
As Grizzlies coach David Fizdale saw it, the game changed less because Thomas was unguardable than because Memphis failed to guard him.
“Basically, we stayed in the locker room at halftime,” Fizdale said, according to Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “Our defense totally failed us.”
That perceived failure prompted the coach to take a hefty cut at the veteran core of a squad that has now lost three straight home games, according to ESPN.com’s Tim MacMahon:
“Right now, I’m really down on our leadership,” Fizdale said without prompting […] “Our huddles are like tombs right now. Nobody wants to step up and lead this group now during this tough time. I’m going to keep demanding it and see who’s going to rise to the challenge.” […]
Asked for his reaction to Fizdale’s harsh criticism of Memphis’ leaders, Grizzlies captain Marc Gasol didn’t have much to say.
“None,” Gasol said. He paused and repeated himself, exaggerating as he enunciated for effect.
Asked if Fizdale’s opinion was inaccurate, Gasol said: “You’re asking for my reaction; I said none. He thinks that, we’ve got to be better, and that’s it. No reaction.”
While the Grizzlies will look to get back to first principles in search of the winning formula they found while dealing with myriad injuries earlier this season, this wasn’t all about miscommunicated switches and ill-constructed offensive possessions leading to scrambled coverages on the other end. This was also about an All-Star scoring demon turning into a flaming sword of justice for a couple of quarters:
Isaiah Thomas had 44 points on 16 shots. Hard to win when the other team has a guy made out of molten lava
— Kevin Lipe (@FlyerGrizBlog) December 21, 2016
… and don’t let the 5-foot-9 frame fool you: that’s something Isaiah’s more than capable of doing.
Just how much did Thomas contribute to Boston coming away with a win? Would you believe, like, everything?
— Mike Beuoy (@inpredict) December 21, 2016
OK, so everything might be a bit of a stretch. The defensive efforts of Horford and Avery Bradley to slow down Gasol and Mike Conley were important late, too. But after carrying the load with 12 points in the third quarter and 17 in the fourth, Thomas still had enough gas left in the tank to score seven points in the overtime session while dishing two assists to push Boston over the finish line.
“He just got to scoring, and he was unstoppable,” said Horford, who finished with 17 points, 14 rebounds, three assists and one block in 40 minutes, according to Himmelsbach. “It just carried us. It just takes a lot of pressure off our team and he just makes it look so easy.”
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