Even with signs the Memphis Grizzlies’ offense is coming around, elite defense is what has kept them atop the Southwest Division.
Memphis seeks a sixth straight win over the Celtics on Wednesday night when they visit Boston.
The Grizzlies (45-18) are averaging 92.6 points and shooting 27.3 percent from 3-point range over their last 14 games, down from 101.3 and 34.8 previously. However, after failing to score 100 in eight straight, they have reached that mark in half of the past six games and shot at least 50.0 percent in each of those three – all victories.
Their league-leading defense has consistently remained stout, however, limiting opponents to 93.8 points per game in that 14-game span, including 37.0 in the paint. Memphis limited Chicago to 38 points in the paint and forced 17 turnovers in a 101-91 win on Monday.
Marc Gasol had 23 points for the Grizzlies, who own a two-game lead over Houston for first place in the Southwest and second in the Western Conference.
"Defense was the key for the whole game," Gasol told the team’s official website. "We scored offensively, we made some shots, that makes them come out of the cave; but defense was the key."
Mike Conley was 3 for 13 and is shooting 38.0 percent over the last 11, including 10 of 40 from 3-point range, though he recorded nine assists with one turnover against the Bulls. Memphis is 10-1 when he has at least eight assists.
"He has to be aggressive. He’s the one guy that has the quickness and the skills to get into the paint and create for everybody else," Gasol said. "At the end of the day we trust him to make those plays and he knows that."
Memphis has won eight straight against the East and defeated Boston 117-100 at home on Nov. 21. Gasol tied a career high with 32 points, Zach Randolph added 16 with 16 rebounds and Conley had eight assists without a turnover.
The Grizzlies are 19-7 since acquiring Jeff Green from the Celtics, including 13-2 when he scores 12-plus. Green had been Boston’s top scorer at 17.6 per game.
Boston (26-36), though, is 14-13 since that deal and two games behind Charlotte for the East’s final playoff spot. Coach Brad Stevens’ club has a difficult road to avoid missing the playoffs for a second straight year, however, with five back-to-back sets in its final 20 games and Jared Sullinger (14.4 ppg) out for the season due to a broken foot.
Avery Bradley may return Wednesday after missing three games with a strained left elbow.
"We are not playing with any cushion, we are playing to just try and get back in it," Stevens said. "We have to play really well over the last 20 games to have a chance."
Isaiah Thomas has averaged 21.4 points in 10 games as a reserve for Boston since coming over from Phoenix and scored 25 in a 100-90 win at Miami on Monday. The Celtics are 6-4 with Thomas, who has averaged 10.3 fourth-quarter points in his last six games.
"For the longest time we kind of just did it by committee," center Kelly Olynyk told the Celtics’ official website regarding the team’s go-to scorer. "Isaiah’s really taken that role by storm and I think it’s good for us."
Boston has won six of seven at home since a 9-15 start.