Here we have a game of two surprising teams. The Memphis Grizzlies have been surprisingly good, looking even better than they have last season. On Wednesday night, they will head to Boston to take on the Celtics, who have been surprisingly weak this season.
After coming within one win of the NBA Finals last season, Boston has struggled on defense and is currently the worst rebounding team in the league. Their age is starting to show, and opposing teams are taking full advantage.
Contrastingly, Memphis is one of the league's youngest teams. All but two of the team's players are under 30, and they play together as a strong, cohesive unit despite being inexperienced as a whole.
Boston needs to take full advantage of that when the Grizzlies visit TD Garden. The Celtics have lost three games in a row are just barely in the Eastern Conference playoff race, whereas the Grizzlies are starting to make a lot of noise in the West.
Both teams will be looking for a big win in this game, and defense will definitely be on both coaches' minds. In a matchup of youth vs. experience, it's really anybody's game.
Time: Wednesday, January 2nd, 7:30 p.m. EST
TV: NBATV, CSN HD, SportSouth
Records: Memphis Grizzlies (19-9) vs. Boston Celtics (14-16)
Betting Line: Memphis (-3.5), Boston (+3.5)
Injuries: Avery Bradley (shoulder, expected to play), Rajon Rondo (thigh/hip, questionable), Kris Joseph (ankle, day-to-day), Quincy Pondexter (knee, out)
Key Storyline: Can Avery Bradley's Return Spark Celtics Out of Slump?
The story of this game will be the return of guard Avery Bradley, who had shoulder surgery over the summer. Bradley does not have much size at 6'2", 180 pounds, but proved to be a great perimeter defender in extended playing time towards the end of last season.
Bradley also provided something of an offensive spark. Over the last month of the 2011-12 season, he averaged 15.1 points while shooting 52 percent from the field and 54.5 percent from long range.
Just how much Bradley will play in his return is unclear, but his teammates will be more than glad to have him back. Boston's struggles at shooting guard and on defense have been noteworthy this season, as Jason Terry has been little more than a scorer and Courtney Lee has been a great disappointment.
Whether or not Bradley plays 15 minutes or 30, he needs to be at his best. His defense is enough to help keep the Celtics in the game from start to finish, and his ability to be a spark speaks for itself.
Such a spark will be needed against a tough and physical Grizzlies team, otherwise Boston can basically guarantee itself a fourth consecutive loss.
Key Matchup: Rudy Gay vs. Paul Pierce
One of the Celtics' few bright spots this season has been veteran forward and scorer Paul Pierce. After a slow start, the former Kansas Jayhawk has started to heat up. He is averaging 19.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.5 steals on the season, and his field-goal percentage has risen to a respectable 43 percent.
Pierce has also been deadly from long range, making 38 percent of his shots from downtown. He'll need to carry the Celtics on offense once again against Memphis, but it won't be easy for him at all.
Rudy Gay is likely going to be tasked with guarding the future Hall of Famer, and he himself is having a fine season of his own. The former UConn star is averaging 18 points and 5.8 boards on the season, and his 1.6 steals solidify him as one of the best pests in the league.
This is definitely going to be the battle to watch, but Gay cannot win it unless he can get past the tough defense of the more experienced Pierce. Gay has shot just 41 percent from the field this season, and just 32 percent from long range. As his team's best scorer, this could prove to be a problem down the stretch.
Thus, Gay must not hesitate to drive the lane and take high percentage shots. He is a phenomenal dunker and cannot be afraid to get his hands dirty in the paint, be it on offense or defense.
He and Pierce also happen to be around the same size, which only makes their matchup closer. Both men must be fully focused, with Pierce ready to score points by any means necessary and Gay refusing to back down from the fight on both sides of the floor.
Whoever wins this battle will come out on the winning side, but the growing possibility of a stalemate makes it all the more tough to call.
X-Factor: Mike Conley
Mike Conley is the Grizzlies' starting point guard, and also happens to be one of the most underrated players in the league. He does not have much size at 6'1", 185 pounds, but is one of the best defensive point guards and also has a knack for making his three-pointers.
On the season, the former Ohio State Buckeye is averaging 13.2 points, 6.3 assists, and ranks second in the NBA with 2.4 steals per game. He has also shot 39 percent from three-point land.
He will likely be matched against the equally pesky Rajon Rondo, and Conley needs to have one goal: never back down. He is a stronger scorer than Rondo, which will allow him to have more confidence driving the lane or pulling up for a three-pointer.
Defensively, Conley needs to be as locked in as ever. Rondo's footwork and offense have improved greatly this season, and Memphis' point man must be ready to take him out of the game completely. He is so talented on both sides of the floor and while he may not rank among the best in distribution, his court vision and basketball IQ give him an uncanny ability to find the open man.
Conley must use all of these skills come Wednesday night, as his effectiveness against Boston is necessary for Memphis to win the game. He doesn't even need to be a factor in the scoring department. So long as he can bring the defense, his team can win.
As happy as the Celtics will be to have Avery Bradley back, he will not be enough to help the team avoid a fourth consecutive loss. Memphis has been too tough and too fiery this season to simply have an off game against a struggling team, and they'll come into Boston ready to win.
Rudy Gay will force Paul Pierce to have a rough shooting night, and he will be a force on defense as well. His rebounding numbers won't be eye-popping, but he will make enough of a difference on the inside that it will be talked about once the game is over.
Who will win?
Zach Randolph will once again have a double-double, and Marc Gasol will make life very difficult for the Celtics. Kevin Garnett's age will be more exposed that it ever has before, and Jason Terry's trying to shoot Boston out of a deep hole will only dig it deeper.
This is because the defense of Mike Conley will leave both the Celtics and Celtics fans aghast. He will come away with steals, dish off passes and sink some clutch three-pointers en route to a Grizzlies victory.
Boston may go on a run here and there, but that won't be nearly enough. This game is Memphis' for the taking, and they will do that and then some
Memphis Grizzlies 104, Boston Celtics 91