BOSTON The Boston Celtics (12-10) are finally an above-.500 basketball team.Next goal?Joining the upper echelon of teams in the East.The C's have a ways to go before getting there, but a win today over a solid Memphis (12-11) team couldn't hurt.And like most of the NBA, the Grizzlies have had to play games without key players.All-Star forward Zach Randolph suffered a torn MCL early in the season which has kept him out for all but four games this season. He's not expected back until early March.The C's have their own injuries to worry about, although their core guys seem to all be improving, health-wise.Injuries happen, regardless of whether you have a typical NBA season or this condensed one courtesy of the NBA lockout.For the C's, the focus now is pretty clear - keep finding ways to win."We've gone through a lot; so has everyone else in this league," said coach Doc Rivers. "It's not just us. To start out slow like we did and get over (.500) - it's good for us. We've just got to keep doing it. We've got to just keep working on it."And that work continues today against the Grizzlies, a team that the C's will have to play well against in order to defeat. Here are some of the key points the Celtics will have to contend with if they are to win their fourth straight game.WHAT TO LOOK FOR:Although you don't hear his name - his first name, at least - too often, Memphis center Marc Gasol is a player the Celtics have to be concerned about. Gasol, the younger brother of Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol, is one of 12 NBA players averaging a double-double of points and rebounds this season. As much as his scoring helps Memphis, he does a nice job of clogging up the lane as well. His presence is a big reason why the Grizzlies are only giving up 37.7 points per game in the paint which ranks 5th in the NBA.MATCHUP TO WATCH:Ray Allen vs. Tony Allen. Having spent the bulk of his career with the Celtics, few have a better understanding and feel for how to contain Ray Allen. Plus, Tony Allen is a heck of a defender whose defensive presence in Memphis is similar to how Kevin Garnett is viewed by the Celtics. "He's like an Army General," Grizzlies guard Mike Conley told the Commercial-Appeal. "He says crazy things but goes out there and backs it up." However, Ray Allen has shown lately that he can still have a major impact on the game without scoring, if teams spend too much time and effort keying in on him. Averaging 2.8 assists per game this season, Ray Allen has averaged five assists in Boston's last three games which includes a season-high eight assists in Boston's 93-90 win at Cleveland on Jan. 31.PLAYER TO WATCH: Although he's not one of Boston's main attractions, Chris Wilcox is starting to provide just what the Celtics need in the front-court. In Boston's 91-89 win over New York on Friday, Wilcox was a huge part of the win despite some less-than-stellar numbers. He had six points and four rebounds, all of which were offensive boards. "I thought Chris Wilcox was the hero," said C's coach Doc Rivers after the Knicks win.STAT TO TRACK: Memphis leads the NBA in steals (10.6) per game, which means Boston's transition defense will have its hands full today. Those turnovers are a big part of why the Grizzlies average 17.3 fast-break points per game, which ranks No. 3 in the NBA. Meanwhile, Boston's defense as a whole has been solid this season. They have the league's second-best scoring defense, giving up just 87 points per game. And they're just as stingy when it comes to limiting fast-break scoring, giving up just 10 points per game which ranks No. 2 in the NBA.
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WALTHAM, Mass. – As the fourth quarter rolls around, you will occasionally catch Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas looking down at his wrist, a gesture to remind anyone watching what time it is – Thomas time.
There are those who elevate their play in the fourth quarter of games, and then there’s Thomas who continues to smoothly navigate his way in unchartered fourth quarter scoring territory.
The Celtics begin the second half of the season Wednesday night against the New York Knicks, and there sits Thomas atop all players in the NBA when it comes to fourth-quarter scoring.
But that’s not all.
He’s not only dropping more points than any other NBA player in the most important quarter of them all, but he’s doing so at an unprecedented level of 10.1 fourth-quarter points per game.
Since NBA.com/stats began tracking fourth quarter scoring with the 1997-1998 season, no player has averaged more than 9.5 fourth-quarter points (LeBron James, 2006) in a season.
What makes Thomas’ fourth quarter heroics so impressive is that everyone in the building – fans, coaches, opponents – knows that’s when he’s looking to be most impactful for the Celtics and yet he still can’t be stopped.
Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford acknowledged how tough it is to limit Thomas despite knowing he’s looking to take over games in the fourth.
“It’s hard because the blitz game is impossible because they don’t roll,” said Clifford whose Hornets were beaten 108-98 by Boston on Monday. “If you watch the teams that try to blitz them, you’re going to give up basically lay-ups. We had things in to get the ball out of his hands but the way they played and the stuff that they usually go to late, they didn’t get to. He (Thomas) made some terrific plays; he’s a terrific offensive player.”
Despite what he does in the fourth and his overall scoring average of 28.2 points which is ranked among the league’s leaders, there are still lots of doubters as to how good Thomas.
Regardless of how you view his play, he has consistently played at a level this season that places him among the game’s best players.
And at the rate he’s scoring in the fourth quarter, he’s establishing himself as one of the great closers in the game.
Consider the list of players in the past decade who led the league in points scored in the fourth quarter.
- 2016: James Harden (7.7)
- 2015: Russell Westbrook (7.1)
- 2014: Kevin Durant (7.9)
- 2013: Kevin Durant (8.4)
- 2012: Kevin Durant (7.3)
- 2011: Amare Stoudemire (7.1)
- 2010: LeBron James (8.0)
- 2009: LeBron James (7.7)
- 2008: LeBron James (9.1)
- 2007: Dwyane Wade (8.2)
You have All-stars, All-NBA First Teamers, league MVPs as well as a few future Hall of Famers.
As good as those players were in their respective seasons, when the game mattered most – the fourth quarter – Thomas numbers (for now at least) stand head and shoulders above them all.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens gives Thomas a lot of credit for being such a consistent scorer, particularly in the fourth quarter.
But as good as Thomas is, he’s not out there getting all these baskets on his own, either.
“It says a lot about the fact that he’s got a lot of skilled guys around him that are hard to leave,” Stevens said. “When you’re playing Kelly (Olynyk) and Jonas (Jerebko) together with him, there’s a lot of space on the floor to operate. When those guys are at the four (power forward) and five (center), when you’re playing guys like Al Horford who can space the floor or Avery (Bradley) or Jae (Crowder), you know, those types of guys … at the end of the day I think that it’s a combination of a lot of things.”
And for opponents, a lot of problems.
“He’s been playing well,” Hornets guard Kemba Walker said of Thomas. “He’s been playing better than anyone in our league. He’s playing with great confidence and making the plays for his team to win games. He’s been great.”