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Celtics Pick Up Signature Win Over Grizzlies As They Cement Themselves Among NBA Elite

BOSTON (CBS) -- The Celtics have been tearing through the NBA for the last two months, but detractors kept shouting that Boston didn't have a signature win during their torrid stretch. Those detractors have nothing to say after Thursday night.

The Celtics themselves didn't think they had anything to prove heading into Thursday night's showdown with Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies, but they went out and proved a few things anyways. The Grizzlies, who had won eight of their last 10, became Boston's latest victim in their dominating run, giving the Celtics that signature win they didn't really need to take their place among the best in the NBA.

Boston handed their Western Conference counterpart a 120-107 defeat at TD Garden despite not having Jaylen Brown, sidelined with that nasty ankle injury that he suffered Tuesday night. Aaron Nesmith started in Brown's place, and departed after just five minutes after suffering a nasty ankle injury of his own, which required a wheelchair to get him to the Boston locker room.

No Brown, no problem for the Celtics. After a pretty close first half, Boston pulled away in the third quarter, something we've seen plenty of in 2022. They built a big enough cushion that when Morant started to get his in the fourth, they were mostly empty points.

Jayson Tatum was cooking on his 24th birthday, leading the charge with 37 points, six rebounds and five assists. He dropped 21 of those points in the fourth quarter as he and Morant engaged in a thrilling duel to close the game. Marcus Smart scored 18 of his own and was a master distributor with 12 assists. Al Horford and Robert Williams anchored a suffocating defense that didn't let Morant sniff the rim, turning the Memphis superstar into a jump shooter. In addition to his defense, Horford exploded for a 21-point, 15-rebound showing in Thursday's win.

That stifling Boston defense held Morant to a 3-for-14 start. He finished 13-for-28 and had 38 points when it was all said and done, with 14 of those coming in the fourth quarter. But those points were pretty meaningless, with Tatum answering him in a battle of the stars.

Boston held Morant to just 6-for-16 shooting on his jumpers, including 4-for-12 from downtown. He only got a few attempts to jump out of the building, resulting in some thunderous dunks, but the Celtics defense made sure those opportunities were few and far between.

Pretty darn good against a guy who had scored 98 points off 64 percent shooting in his two games prior. Ime Udoka, fresh off winning Coach of the Month after a 9-2 February, said Morant's output was "the quietest 38 points ever," and he was right.

Their laser focus on defense has fueled Boston's surge, which now has the team sitting fifth in the crowded Eastern Conference standings. Thursday night was the Celtics' ninth straight win over a playoff team.

After a disappointing and frustrating first half of the season, the Celtics are, at the moment, the best team in the NBA. They have the best defense in the league, and Tatum can even lay a claim at being one of the best players in the league over the last few weeks.

There is just a different feel surrounding the team right now. They're overcoming the adversity that would have sunk them three months ago. The defense is smothering and the ball is moving like never before on offense. The Celtics are having fun again, and it shows every night they take the court.

"Watching us now, we play with a lot more passion," said Tatum. "We just seem like we're having a lot more fun. Obviously, when you're winning you tend to play a little more enthused; with a smile, a laugh, things like that. It wasn't happening too often at the beginning of the season.

"On defense, everybody being locked in, just having fun. This is basketball, at the end of the day. It's supposed to be a lot of fun," he added. "And we've been having a lot of fun lately."

The Celtics are rolling as they head into a Sunday matchup with the Brooklyn Nets, who will likely have both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving for the tilt. The Nets are struggling, but will still present a mighty challenge in the matinee affair.

But with the way the Celtics are playing lately, very few things have been able to slow them down. It wouldn't surprise anyone if they add another signature win to their resume this weekend, and have a lot of fun in the process.

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