A bold claim from Memphis superstar Ja Morant has backfired big time as his Grizzlies suffered their ninth loss in 12 games, this time going down to an under-manned Boston Celtics.
Meanwhile, the Raptors’ surprise decision not to trade a pair of their big stars has paid off early, with Toronto duo Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam combining to seal a clutch win over the Pistons.
It’s today’s NBA Wrap!
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Jimmy Buckets buzzer-beater! | 00:25
MORANT STILL ‘FINE’ AS SLUMP WORSENS
In an ESPN interview back in December, Ja Morant said that Memphis was “fine in the West” and only needed to worry about the Boston Celtics from the Eastern Conference going forward.
But if today’s game is anything to go by, they may have something to worry about in the East.
Morant and his Grizzlies entered Boston’s TD Garden hoping to upset the Eastern Conference leading Celtics, but instead left humbled 119-109 by a Boston team missing a host of their biggest names.
Despite missing stars Jaylen Brown, Malcolm Brogdon, and Marcus Smart through injury and superstar Jason Tatum having an off shooting night under heavy defensive pressure from Dillon Brooks – he finished the game with three of 16 from the floor and missed all eight of his shots in the second half – Boston pulled away late to comfortably account for Memphis.
In an ominous sign for the rest of the league’s contenders, the Celtics showed off the ridiculous depth on their roster with seven players scoring in double figures as they flexed their championship muscle in front of 19,156 raucous home fans – sweeping the two-game regular season series between the pair of title hopefuls.
“Whether it’s a good shooting night or a bad shooting night, the ultimate goal is to win (so I’ve gotta) find a way to contribute to winning. Whether that’s setting screens, being a decoy, getting a stop,” Tatum said during his post-game interview.
“… Whoever is in, whoever is out, we have a next man up mentality and the goal is always the same each night and that’s to find a way to win.”
While the Grizzlies did manage to have a small win by controlling points in the paint (60-34) and fast-break points (14-7), they were dominated on the boards (34-54) – especially on the offensive glass (3-14) – and failed to match Boston’s shooting prowess from deep (12 three-pointers to the Celtics’ 21).
Memphis found themselves down by 13 points at halftime before a 13-point third quarter from superstar guard Morant – with several highlight reel plays – saw them come storming back to briefly take the lead late in the period before trailing Boston by a solitary point at the final break.
The Celtics were still just one point ahead in the fourth quarter until Derrick White – who led them with 23 points and 10 assists – scored six quick points to spark a 16-7 run which saw them take a 104-94 lead with just over four minutes remaining.
Veteran Al Horford came up clutch down the stretch, nailing three shots from beyond the arc in the final five minutes to keep the Grizzlies at bay as he finished the game with 16 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
Sam Hauser chipped in with 20 points as he hit an equal career-best six three-pointers while big man Robert Williams III continued to demonstrate his importance to the team with 10 points and a whopping 16 rebounds.
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The victory, Boston’s fourth in a row, improves their league-best overall record to 41-16 and stretches their lead for the Eastern Conference’s top spot to one-and-a-half games ahead of their blockbuster showdown with the second-placed Bucks in Milwaukee on Wednesday (AEDT).
Meanwhile the loss leaves Memphis, currently the number two seed in the West, with a 34-22 record this season to trail the first-placed Nuggets by four and a half games as the NBA gears towards the All-Star break.
But Morant isn’t backing down from his earlier comments.
“I don’t care. Honestly. I said what I said, and I mean that.
The confidence I had when I said that is the confidence that got us to the point where we’re at now – being one of the top teams in this league,” he said.
That’s despite the trade period seeing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving join West rivals Dallas and Phoenix respectively.
But Morant is undaunted. “Yeah, my confidence will never change. I don’t care who got something to say about it.”
Morant led the Grizzlies with 25 points, seven assists and six rebounds, while Desmond Bane scored 18 and Jaren Jackson Jr. – who battled foul trouble all game before fouling out late in the fourth – had 15 points and seven rebounds in the defeat.
VANVLEET, SIAKAM COME UP BIG AS RAPTORS SURVIVE LATE SCARE
Fred VanVleet, with 35 points, hit six three-pointers and dished out eight assists as he registered his career-high ninth game with 30 or more points this season, while Pascal Siakam scored 28 points to go along with six assists of his own to lead the Toronto Raptors to a crucial 119-118 victory over the Detroit Pistons.
After the front office decided to keep both VanVleet and Siakam in Toronto despite persistent speculation they could be moved ahead of last Friday’s trade deadline, the duo repaid the faith shown in them by the team’s president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri by helping the Raptors register their fourth win in five games.
“It’s certainly a treat to have two guys out there who you can coach the team through,” said Toronto assistant coach Adrian Griffin, who led the team in this game with head coach Nick Nurse away for personal reasons.
Detroit’s head coach Dwane Casey agreed.
“They were the difference in the game,” said Casey, who coached both VanVleet and Siakam during his time in charge of the Raptors.
“They carried the team, they did a great job.”
However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Toronto. After leading 53-52 at the main break, the Raptors appeared to be pulling away from as they went up 85-77 in the fourth quarter before Detroit came storming back to cut the margin to 116-113 when Jaden Ivey hit a three-pointer with 10.1 seconds remaining.
The Toronto crowd must have been feeling a case of deja vu as their team looked like blowing another near-certain victory after blowing a 12-point lead in the final five minutes of Saturday’s (AEDT) home loss to Utah.
Fortunately for Raptors fans, VanVleet stepped up to hit a pair of clutch free throws and Precious Achiuwa made one of two after Piston’s forward Bojan Bogdanovic had hit both of his free throws to cancel out VanVleet’s.
Ivey then hit a buzzer beater from 28-feet to cut his team’s losing margin back to one point.
Second-year forward Scottie Barnes contributed 20 points and Achiuwa had a double-double (11 points, 11 rebounds) as Toronto improved to 27-31, keeping them just ahead of the Chicago Bulls in the race for the Eastern Conference’s final play-in spot.
With the loss Detroit fell to 15-43 on the season and now find themselves tied with the Charlotte Hornets for the worst record in the East.
Bojan Bogdanovic was valiant in defeat scoring 33 points, while Alec Burks had 21, and Hamidou Diallo and Ivey each chipped in 18 apiece for the Pistons as 18 total turnovers for the game came back to haunt the team.
“We’ve just got to be smarter with the ball, stronger with the ball,” Detroit head coach Casey said post-game.
“A lot of our turnovers were self-inflicted, throwing it to nobody, throwing it to air.”
NBA SCORES FROM FEBRUARY 12
Celtics 119 – 109 Grizzlies
Raptors 119 – 118 Pistons