Employee #8 Seals the Deal
March 16, 2002
MEMPHIS - When Antoine Walker heaved a last-second shot from beyond halfcourt, he thought more about starting a celebration than making the unlikely attempt. But just when it seemed the Celtics had exhausted all of their late-game luck, the ball fell through the net at the buzzer.
It was a fitting end to last night's surprising 103-97 win over the Memphis Grizzlies, a game that concluded with a 14-0 run by the visitors over the final 1 minute 41 seconds.
Ordinarily, Celtics coach Jim O'Brien does not show much emotion following games. But once Walker hit his final shot - giving him a game-high 38 points - O'Brien smiled with shocked delight and ran onto the court to congratulate his cocaptain.
The Celtics stretched their winning streak to a season-high seven games, improved to 18-16 on the road, and reached .500 (11-11) against the Western Conference.
By O'Brien's estimation, it was the most emotion he had shown since the Celtics (38-27) completed a surprising comeback win over the Lakers at Staples Center in mid-February. On the night Boston narrowly defeated the worst team in the West, it was not uncommon to hear references to the defending NBA champions. In fact, the Lakers were very much a part of the Celtics' rallying cry in the fourth quarter when they trailed, 97-89, and took a timeout with 1:54 left.
"We've been in this position before and we've responded well," said Paul Pierce (20 points). "When I came out of the timeout, I just told everybody, 'Remember what we did in the Staples Center. I don't know why we can't do it again.'
"I kind of came out of the huddle smiling. Down 8, that's the kind of situation I love to be in."
Suddenly, a Boston team that "couldn't throw the ball in the ocean," according to O'Brien (it shot 35.7 percent from the floor), and couldn't get a favorable call was making shots and getting to the line for 3-point plays.
The decisive run started with Pierce hitting a reverse layup and a free throw. Next, local favorite Tony Delk was forgotten on the perimeter by the Memphis defense. With four 3-point shooters on the floor, the Grizzlies had to lay off someone, so Delk (11 points) was wide open in the corner and knocked down his second 3-pointer of the game.
When Rodney Rogers hit a 5-footer and went to the line to complete the 3-point play with 15.2 seconds remaining, the Celtics held a 98-97 lead and the Grizzlies spent their last timeout.
Boston pressured the inbounds pass by Grant Long. Memphis wanted to get the ball to Jason Williams, but it never reached him. Kenny Anderson grabbed his fifth steal of the night with 13.8 seconds to go (giving the Celtics a season-high 17 thefts) and dished to Walker, who went to the basket and drew another foul. He made both free throws, putting Boston ahead, 100-97.
Then Walker made his longest shot of the night.
"It was just a thrilling victory to be able to steal a victory at the end like that," said O'Brien. "It's just a credit to our guys that they never give up, that they never feel like they're out of the game no matter where they are.
"That win in LA when we were down 10 with three minutes to go and then this win is really a credit to our guys' chemistry and belief in themselves under adverse circumstances. They have surprised me often, and that long bomb at the end I just thought was such an exclamation mark that it was wonderful."
The Grizzlies are a dangerous team, precisely because they are often lightly regarded. They had lost 10 of 12 entering last night's game and have the second-worst winning percentage in the NBA, behind Chicago. They start two rookies, albeit Rookie of the Year candidates, in Shane Battier and Pau Gasol. On paper, the Grizzlies appear about as threatening as their new mascot: a shaggy bear with a beer belly.
But every bad team is capable of a dozen or so good games over the course of an 82-game season. After all, Memphis has beaten Charlotte, Philadelphia (twice), Sacramento, and the Lakers. Given the Celtics' occasional lapses against lesser opponents (Hawks, Bulls), it was not entirely surprising that they struggled early and often.
Besides, Memphis had its own surprises in store, using a zone defense to force Boston to shoot jumpers. As a result, the Celtics trailed for much of the first half, though they managed to take a 53-51 lead at the break. They squandered a 9-point (66-57) third-quarter lead and entered the fourth ahead only 77-75.
"We're just fighting, man," said Walker. "We have no quit in us as a team. We believe we can win every game and you need that, especially on the road."
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