The Suns hit the first pit stop on a three game road trip dripping with playoff implications for a game against a Boston Celtics team with nothing to play for but pride. Boston gave the Suns everything they wanted and more, but an unexpected hero saved the day for Phoenix.
The Celtics sleeved jerseys are hideous. I own about two dozen Suns shirts and every single one seems more fashionable than the
travesties of fashion sleevies the Suns have sported so I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise. Maybe they could just make them look more like regular t-shirts? Tasteless fashion aside, the Suns didn't get off to what I'd consider a strong start. Neither team was exactly lighting it up, but just under midway through the first quarter Boston led 13-8 and the Suns were looking a little disjointed.
Phoenix flipped a switch, though, and Bledsoe jumped a passing lane and scored on a breakaway layup to give the Suns a 14-13 lead just moments later. Dragic also had a couple wily darts to the rim as the run swelled to 14-0 before Rajon Rondo stanched the bleeding. Phoenix led 22-15 at this point and traded baskets the rest of the period.
First Quarter: Suns 29, Celtics 22
Things looked like they might be slipping away from the Celtics a little bit at the beginning of the second period. Watching Ish Smith (yes, rim protector Ish) send back a Jared Sullinger dunk attempt can exude that impression. On the other end the Suns offense seemed to be producing good shot attempts with a generous sprinkling of dunks and bunnies. The beleaguered defense was at least managing not to disrupt the Celtics from wallowing in their own offensive dysfunction.
Markieff Morris led a reserve group for Phoenix that flirted with blowing the game open by stretching their lead to 11 on several occasions, but Boston kept within striking distance. Then things unraveled for the Suns. Miles Plumlee air balled a free throw. Gerald Green appeared hesitant. Phoenix went 4:20 without a field goal. Suddenly the Celtics trailed by just four (39-35). The closing seconds that included a shot clock violation, an errant pass that went out of bounds untouched, and an inbounds pass that was stolen before the buzzer epitomized a first half of basketball that wouldn't necessarily capture the casual fan's interest. Phoenix had squandered an opportunity to gain separation and led by just two at the intermission.
Halftime: Suns 46, Celtics 44
The Suns were able to extend their lead to seven as Boston went scoreless for the first four minutes of the quarter. Kris Humphries was staying active for the Celtics, but some of that activity included negating a basket by way of offensive basket interference and hanging from the rim while trying to get a piggyback ride from Plumlee. Still, he reached double digits in rebounding early in the third as Boston struggled to keep pace. Remember the discussion of 50/50 ballls. Humphries was grabbing them.
The game devolved back into something that only loosely resembled basketball. Both teams struggled to get anything cohesive on offense. The Celtics, in particular, looked like they might not have any legs with shot after shot coming up short. Lots of the misses for both teams weren't even close. Gerald Green lobbed up a shot that missed everything as his recent struggles continued. Once again the Celtics mucked and muddled their way along (or was it the Suns scuffling and stumbling along) and pulled within four to close the period on a rebound put back by Kelly Olynyk.
Third Quarter: Suns 64, Celtics 60
Going into the fourth it seemed safe to assume that the Suns could pull this out if they could just get to the good side of 80. That kind of game so far. Then the Celtics ran off nine straight points in the first 1:34 of the period. Overall ineptitude coupled with pillow soft defense helped incite the run as Boston appeared to be gaining confidence after managing to hang around the whole game. Jeff Hornacek called a much needed timeout that helped interrupt the Celtics unusual scoring paroxysm.
An unfortunate play kind of characterized the fight in the Celtics on this night. Plumlee grabbed a rebound and Olynyk raked him across the eye (literally clawing and scraping) sending Miles to the bench (Alex Len entered the game for him - spoiler alert). Not surprisingly, P.J. Tucker was just dripping with intensity on the Suns behalf. He looked every bit the role of a linebacker ripping a football away from a running back wrestling the ball away from a Celtic on one play.
The Celtics led 76-73 on a Chris Johnson layup after a wild melee that was more episode of The Three Stooges than NBA basketball, but the Suns responded down the stretch. Bledsoe tied the game at 78 on an and-one then the teams traded baskets to leave the score knotted at 80 with two minutes left.
With just one minute remaining the Suns had possession and the ball was in the hands of closer Eric Bledsoe. He launched a pull up iso jumper... that bounced off the rim. Bounced off the rim into the eager hands of rookie Alex Len, who engulfed the offensive rebound and scored over a helpless Boston defender. Len was fouled on the play and hit the free throw to stretch the lead to three.
Boston missed a three pointer to tie on the ensuing play and managed to grab the offensive rebound, but an intercepted pass led to a Markieff Morris fast break dunk to close out the game.
Final Score: Suns 87, Celtics 80
Somewhere in hell is a TV that shows all of Plumlee's post ups
So, I think we look better.
But it could just be we're playing the Celtics.
I can't wait until horney trusts Alex Len
So we aren't out rebounded and out lengthened (whatever the word) every night.
I haven't looked at the box score, but is Green 2-11?
He looks like 2-11 to me.
Looking at Plumlee's eye is making mine water
Just popped in to say:
Alex Len, bitches.
Alex Len. He hit the decisive shot that pulled this game out of the fire.
Phoenix held the Celtics to 80 points on 30.9% shooting. Both are the lowest the Suns have held an opponent to this season. I know it shouldn't really count because it's against the Celtics... but officially it still does.
The Suns were outhustled by the Celtics for the better part of the game. This is the second straight outing that a team which would seemingly have much less to play for was visibly more desperate than Phoenix. I'm just not getting how the Suns are having a hard time playing with intensity given the circumstances.
Gerald Green looks like his confidence is shaken. I don't think he's adapting well to his reduced role with Bledsoe back in the fold. It seems contradictory, but it was like he was forcing action and tentative all at the same time. Watching him pass up on shots that he normally pulls the string on is very out of character. I don't think I'm stepping out on a ledge to suggest that this is more than just coincidence. Green is 6-23 from the field in the last two games.
That was a damn near unwatchable game. About the only redeeming quality was the last few minutes. I wish I could have recorded it so I could have skipped through the commercials to get it over with quicker.
The Suns desperately needed a win and they got a win even though their desperation seemed to be lacking.
It was serendipitous that Phoenix faced Boston in this game... because there aren't many other teams the Suns would have beat playing like they did tonight.
Also, Alex Len officially had his first Phoenix Sun moment.
After 64 games, it is obvious that the Phoenix Suns need to be perfectly healthy to be a winning basketball team. On Friday night against the Celtics, the Suns will be healthy for the first time since December 30.
Earlier today, azcentral.com's beat reporter Paul Coro reported what many of us expected to happen.
The Suns most productive starting lineup will be together for the opening tip for the first time since a December 30 romping of the Los Angeles Clippers. In that game, Eric Bledsoe's meniscus tore in his knee, sidelining him for 10 weeks.
At that point, the Suns starting five of Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, P.J. Tucker, Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee won 12 of 16 games in which no one got hurt. Twice, Dragic left a game in the 4th due to injury and the Suns lost.
Let's take a closer look how they got to 12-4 together.
*data courtesy of basketball-reference.com
This 5-man group has still played the second-most minutes on the team despite Bledsoe's injury. The only lineup that has played more minutes as a unit is the other primary starting lineup that swaps in Green for Bledsoe. That lineup is a net positive for the Suns, but not nearly to the degree of the Bledsoe/Dragic lineup.
Otherwise, the Suns are just a slightly above average team with a 24-24 record (3 of those losses saw Dragic leave the game in the 4th quarter with a lead, only to lose the game without him) and a net +2.2 points scored per 100 possessions.
The 12-4 lineup that's starting tonight's game, and hopefully the rest of the season, put up some quality wins.
The Suns beat the Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets, Toronto Raptors and Dallas Mavericks in that stretch, while losing to only the Nets, Grizzlies, Spurs and Warriors. That's a 6-5 record against current playoff teams, but the best news is that the Suns went 6-0 against losing teams*.
*The Nets were a losing team at the time, so you could call it 6-1 if you want
In the Suns' other 48 games not started and ended with Dragic/Bledsoe back court, they have gone 24-24 with an 11-9 record against teams over .500 and 13-15 against teams under .500**.
Despite getting the boost that is Bledsoe back, the ironman of the team is hurting.
"Oh yes," Suns PG Goran Dragic replied when asked if this was the most banged up he's been at this point in the season. "Just bruises though. Nothing major."
Bad ankle. Bruised ribs.
"Maybe if Bledsoe hadn't gotten hurt," he said wistfully of the banging he's taken over the past couple of months.
The last time Bledsoe returned from injury (he missed 6 games for a shin bruise in November), the Suns lost to the struggling Grizzlies but then won 5 straight and 10 of 12 before Bledsoe went down again.
On Wednesday is his return, the Suns lost to the Cavaliers despite Bledsoe putting up 15 points, 9 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 steals in 33 minutes of action. But the Suns were missing P.J. Tucker due to suspension.
Hopefully, the Suns lost their obligatory first-game-back and will now go on a much-needed winning streak with their preferred starting lineup.
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.
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...
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.