This is the time of year where the going gets tough and the tough get going... but it comes at a particularly troubling time for a Suns team that seems to have a precariously low supply of toughness. Will Phoenix get its mojo back, or is is tortilla time for the team from the desert?
When: Friday March 14, 2014, 4:30 PM local time (7:30 EST)
Where: TD Garden, Boston, MA
Watch/Listen: TV - FSNAZ, Radio - KTAR 98.7 FM/620 AM
The Suns dispatched the pesky Celtics 100-94 on February 19th in one of the last games they remembered how to play defense. Phoenix actually reached its apex of the season the game after this when they pummeled the San Antonio Spurs to move 12 games above .500 (33-21), but apparently a Gregg Popovich imprecation has hoodwinked the team into adopting the defensive personality of the Philadelphia 76ers ever since... In fact, those two games are the only times the Suns have held their opponent under 100 in their last 17 overall.
The game was pendulous in the second half, with the Celtics leading by as much as nine and the Suns pushing an edge to double digits (10) in the fourth quarter. Boston clawed back and had possession down three with :24 left in the game, but failed to convert and were forced to foul and watch Gerald Green hit free throws to ice the game.
Markieff Morris led the Suns with 18 points, including several big buckets when the Suns reversed the momentum at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth quarters. Rajon Rondo had 18 points and 10 assists for Boston.
Boston Celtics: 22-43
Points per game: 95.4 (27) Points allowed: 99.4 (11)
ORtg: 102.1 (26) DRtg: 106.3 (14)
Perhaps crediting Phoenix with a stout defensive performance the last time these teams met is misleading. Stopping the Celtics hasn't exactly been a daunting task. Boston has only scored 100+ points twice in their last 12 games and just 17 times in 65 games this season. A big part of the reason they can't score is because they can't shoot threes (third to last in the league) or from the field in general (26). Add in turning over the ball at the eighth highest rate and this becomes a rather mephitic mixture.
The team was expected to struggle without their All-Star point guard, and they did, but have been even worse (5-14) since Rondo's return. This has become a lost season for a proud franchise - see Phoenix Suns, 2012-13. Boston is coming off an embarrassing 24 point home loss at the hands of the fearsome New York Knicks and will presumably be anxious to avoid doubling up their disappointing showing.
Phoenix Suns: 36-28
Points per game: 105.5 (6) Points allowed: 103.1 (25)
ORtg: 109.5 (8) DRtg: 107.1 (16)
Time for take two on operation reincorporate Eric Bledsoe. The first cut was definitely one of those burn the film, throwaway type of games. Considering the stakes and the competition I would assert that was the Suns worst loss of the season. Perhaps the most hilarious part of the dark comedy for me was when the Suns' broadcast crew appeared to be legitimately asserting that the Cavs were pasting the Suns because opposing teams enjoy the Phoenix climate so much.
Bledsoe (15 points and nine assists) didn't look half bad for a guy who hadn't played in ten weeks, but signs of shaking off the rust were evident in his 5-16 shooting. While the Suns were able to snap their streak of defensive futility in which they allowed opponents to shoot over 50% from the field in seven straight games (Cleveland shot .469) they still gave up 110 points to a fairly anemic offense that only averages 97.2 per game.
The Suns have now allowed at least 104 points in every game of a 3-7 stretch that has them teetering on the brink of a late season collapse. Suggestions of lack of toughness and effort have suddenly permeated a locker room that was impervious to such insidious traits to this point in the season. P.J. Tucker returns from a one game suspension for his part in an exchange with Blake Griffin and will hopefully bring the team's heart back with him.
What To Watch For:
A Pulse: I will be
terrified shocked if the Suns come out with the same level of energy, which is none, as last game. If the fallout from the Cleveland game doesn't inspire a livelier showing this team's playoff hopes may be extinguished. Just keep an eye on 50/50 balls. The ones the Suns didn't get any of last game.
100: The Suns defense has been abhorrent. This is a great opportunity to pin a slump buster down to double digits. At some point I think that effort has to enter the conversation as a culprit for the defensive deterioration. The axiom is that shooting comes and goes, but defense is a constant. Well, are we to believe the Suns just forgot how to play defense? Are they gassed? Not enough so that they aren't still filling it up on offense at an above average rate. Maybe they only have enough energy left to play half the court...
The Final Word(s):
This three game road trip is going to be a decisive stretch for the Suns. The loss to Cleveland just took away their margin for error. The Suns probably need to go 2-1 to clasp on to more than an exiguous chance of climbing back into a playoff position. Since this game is undoubtedly the easiest of the three contests it would behoove the Suns to take care of business.