A matchup critical to the Eastern Conference playoff landscape closes out the regular season on Sunday with the Memphis Grizzlies hosting the Boston Celtics.
For Boston (50-31), Sunday’s outcome could be the difference between finishing as high as second in the East or as low as fourth. The Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers have matching records going into the final day, and both are one game behind the reigning NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks.
The Sixers host the Detroit Pistons, while the Bucks visit the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Boston had a prime opportunity to move into the driver’s seat for the East’s second spot before relinquishing a fourth-quarter lead in a 127-121 loss at Milwaukee on Thursday.
Jayson Tatum and Al Horford missed Thursday’s contest, which was the second half of a back-to-back set after a 117-94 rout of Chicago. Neither appeared on the team’s injury report Saturday.
Marcus Smart carried the scoring load by going 7-of-12 from 3-point range en route to finishing with 29 points at Milwaukee.
“That right there alone speaks for itself,” Smart said. “We played a good team and we didn’t have everybody, and we still gave them a run for their money and almost won it.”
The Celtics own tiebreakers over both Milwaukee and Philadelphia, and thus can climb to No. 2 with a win over the Grizzlies and a Bucks loss. A Boston victory guarantees it no worse than No. 3. A Sixers win over a lowly Pistons team and a Milwaukee win combined with a Celtics loss relegates Boston to No. 4.
The Grizzlies (56-25) come into Sunday’s contest having locked up the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. After recording a 141-114 romp over the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday, however, Memphis is not without a goal in the regular-season finale — another win sets the franchise mark for Memphis’ best regular-season record.
Ja Morant collected 21 points and nine assists in his return from a nine-game absence due to a knee injury. While the Grizzlies had locked up their playoff position, coach Taylor Jenkins said that he viewed this as an opportunity to get Morant back into form for the playoffs.
“It’s hard to get 10 NBA bodies out there to simulate games for him,” Jenkins said. “The physicality, the speed, it’s a great tune-up. Your natural ramp-up of 1-on-1, 3-on-3, 5-on-5, but nothing replaces NBA games.”
Morant is averaging 27.6 points per game, but the Grizzlies’ offense continued to hum in his absence. Memphis posted 122 points or more in six of the nine games Morant missed, including an April 1 victory over a Phoenix Suns team with the NBA’s best record.
Dillon Brooks scored 30 points in the 122-114 win, which was Memphis’ last before Saturday’s blowout of the Pelicans. On Saturday, the Grizzlies posted a 55-point third quarter in one of the team’s most impressive outings of a season in which it ranks third in the NBA in scoring offense.
“When we get that ball humming and everybody eats … I don’t know if we’re going to score 55 every quarter but you can really be efficient,” Jenkins said.
–Field Level Media