On basketball

Experience has the final sway

The Grizzlies tried everything but couldn’t stop Rajon Rondo (18 points). The Grizzlies tried everything but couldn’t stop Rajon Rondo (18 points). (Jim Weber/Reuters)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / December 15, 2009

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MEMPHIS - This is pretty much how it’s going to be every game for the Celtics. The NBA’s upstarts are waiting impatiently to take a shot at Big Brother, hoping to catch the Celtics slipping, ragged, or just plain below par for a night.

The last team that caught the Celtics slipping on the road was the Indiana Pacers more than a month ago, and since then Boston has run off eight straight road wins and 11 overall as they reached win No. 20 with a 110-105 victory over the Grizzlies at FedEx Forum last night.

The disparity between the haves and the have-nots is shrinking and last night was a prime example of how a capable, young, athletic team can push the aging Celtics. The Grizzlies would probably edge the Oklahoma City Thunder in the under-25 championship. Coach Lionel Hollins ran so many budding prospects at the Celtics it seemed as if there were some Memphis Tigers on the court.

Youngster after the youngster took their opportunity to wear down the Celtics, but they couldn’t. Boston has supreme confidence in closing down the stretch and that’s the primary difference between the haves and have nots. The growing teams aren’t precise in their execution in the waning minutes of games but the Grizzlies were impressive down the stretch.

Behind 8 points with 2:47 left, the Grizzlies countered with 6 straight points, 4 by O.J. Mayo. They pushed the Celtics to the wall, but Boston always counterpunched, such as Paul Pierce’s runner for a 107-103 lead with 48.5 seconds remaining or Ray Allen’s fortuitous 26-footer in the final 20 seconds that sealed the game.

Good teams make their luck. Rudy Gay knocked away a pick-and-roll pass from Pierce to Kevin Garnett, but Allen was attentive enough to catch the deflection and savvy enough to manage the clock so he had enough time for his picture-perfect release. Good teams find ways to win, even when the more energetic teams attack them fiercely.

The Celtics never led by more than 8 as the Grizzlies refused to be buried.

“We’re a seasoned team and no matter when we get down, we expect to win,’’ Pierce said. “That’s our mind-set. We have been in many battles together. Going into a close game, we know what we want to do. We don’t panic. When we play together, we’re tough to beat.’’

The Celtics are simply following in the tradition of many great NBA teams that win on guile and experience, which always seems to edge youth and athleticism. But the gap is closing between the Celtics, Lakers, Magic, Cavaliers and the Grizzlies, Thunder, and Bobcats.

Gone are the days when the Celtics could win road games just on their reputation and 24 minutes of execution. The Celtics are being pushed by clubs filled with lottery picks.

“I think the younger teams are coming into their own,’’ forward Rasheed Wallace said. “You have some guys on there who have been in the league for four or five years and now they’re starting to learn from their veteran players what it takes to win. Before they were probably coming in like, ‘All I want is a dunk tonight, if I get my dunk I’m good’ or ‘I want to score 20 points tonight.’

“You have a lot of young guys who are starting to look at the overall team aspect. If the team wins, then we all look good.’’

The Celtics are constructed to win now and soon enough, when the Big Three retire, they will be dragged back to the pack. There is a big difference between learning how to win (Grizzlies) and knowing how to win (Celtics), that’s why when Memphis cut the lead to 2 and needed one stop to perhaps steal the win, there was little doubt Boston would prevail.

The Bulls of Michael Jordan, perhaps on the second of back-to-back games against a younger team, would play horrible for three quarters and if they weren’t blown out, would turn it on in the fourth and nab the win. The Celtics are a little different. They don’t have the brashness to sleepwalk against lesser opponents, but when they are pressed - such as against Washington last week or the Knicks three weeks ago - they respond with execution and the veterans make plays.

“They made the winning plays,’’ Memphis point guard Mike Conley said. “They bring a lot of energy, I think they talk a lot, communicate. They space the floor well and they do a lot of the little things that make them a great team . . . a team that plays hard, everybody from the starters to the bench. It’s contagious.’’

Teams such as the Grizzlies are picking up tips from the Celtics. Games such as these are learning experiences for the younger teams and confidence boosters for the elite teams. But soon enough, those younger teams will grow into veterans and begin to make those plays. Gay, who scored 23 points, said his time is coming soon.

“Everybody here is here for a reason,’’ he said. “As long as you work hard, there is no reason we should have as big of a gap [against elite teams] as we had in the past. People are getting older. People are getting more wise and we’re starting to win.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at

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