Defenses, point guards highlight Celtics-Grizzlies matchup
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Two of the NBA's top defensive teams lock horns for the first time this season when the Boston Celtics visit the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday night in a rare showdown of standout point guards Kyrie Irving and Mike Conley.
The Celtics have won the last five in the interconference rivalry, limiting the Grizzlies to 93 and 98 points in last year's two-game season-series sweep that was accomplished while Conley was out with an Achilles injury.
The key to beating Boston from the Memphis perspective has been pretty basic: When the Celtics have scored more than 100 points, they've won 12 of the last 14 meetings. When they've been held to 100 or fewer, the Grizzlies have prevailed in seven of the last nine games.
Memphis has followed that script this season, going 11-4 when the opponent has scored 100 or fewer, and 8-0 when 95 or fewer.
The Grizzlies have won their last two games, 107-99 in Los Angeles over the Lakers on Sunday and 95-87 at home over Cleveland on Wednesday.
Not coincidentally, the impressive defensive efforts have coincided with the return of Dillon Brooks, who missed 21 games with a sprained left knee.
The Grizzlies were 7-4 when Brooks suffered his injury, went 9-12 while he was out, and have regained their winning ways while his playing time has increased from 12 to 15 minutes in his first two games back.
"It feels great being part of a group of great guys," he said to reporters in the wake of the win over Cleveland. "Coming back into something where we were losing and now we've got two wins under our belt, it feels great."
The Celtics will be looking to rebound from a 127-113 drubbing in Houston on Thursday. This will be their second stop on a five-day, three-game trip that concludes Monday in San Antonio.
Boston lost despite another positive contribution from Marcus Smart, who made his 14th consecutive start. The Celtics outscored the Rockets by four points during Smart's 31 minutes on the floor but were scorched by 18 in his 17 minutes on the bench.
After opening the season 10-10 with Smart as a reserve, the Celtics have gone 10-4 with their defensive ace in the starting lineup.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens noted before the game against Houston that Smart deserves more than just a pat on the back for his outstanding defensive work.
"Marcus is a really good defender, who probably should have been on all-defensive teams before and for whatever reason has not been," Stevens told a group of reporters. "So maybe if everybody could write a little blurb for him, I think that would be nice because he should be on it every year."
No doubt, Smart will get a crack at Conley, and Brooks at Irving, before the night is over.
But for starters, it'll be Conley vs. Irving in a point guard matchup that might be seen again at the NBA All-Star Game in February, but because of circumstances, hasn't been seen in an NBA regular-season game in nearly four years -- March 2015.
The last time Irving faced the Grizzlies -- in March 2016 -- Conley sat out. And the last time Conley played against Irving's team -- the Cleveland Cavaliers in October 2015 -- Irving was sidelined.
Both were out with injuries when Cleveland faced Memphis twice during the 2017 season.
So despite the fact that Irving is in his eighth season and Conley his 12th, the standouts have dueled just five times in their careers, with Conley holding a 3-2 edge in wins.
Updated December 28, 2018