Shorthanded Suns play confident brand of basketball, overwhelm Celtics

Dec 11, 2021, 12:18 AM

PHOENIX — If the Phoenix Suns are playing their brand of basketball, they can handle a whole lot of NBA teams, even while they are shorthanded.

But that’s especially for bad teams, squads still figuring out their identity and those in a tough stretch of their schedule.

The Boston Celtics are definitely the last two of those qualifiers, and might be the first one, at least until Jaylen Brown (hamstring) gets healthy.

The Suns without Devin Booker (left hamstring strain) and Deandre Ayton (non-COVID illness) cruised past Boston 111-90 on Friday, performing to their usual high standards as defenders and ball movers.

It’s the type of performance that makes you realize how valuable it is for the Suns to know who they are and for their players to know who they are inside the whole ecosystem.

“You need the talent for sure but there are nights during the season where the style of play, the standard of play can help you sustain when you have so many guys out,” head coach Monty Williams said.

The Celtics (13-14) looked fried, and it made sense when their schedule read that it was their last night of a west coast road trip entailing five games in eight days. It didn’t help that the Suns were coming in as fresh as they could be, with three days between games at home and two days off practice.

Boston’s offense had little to no moxie or sense of what it really is yet outside of All-Star wing Jayson Tatum scoring individually. When that process is happening, a team’s defense needs to be at least solid to support it. And for a defense that is top-10 in the league, that was not the case against Phoenix.

A variety pack of Mikal Bridges (14 points), Jae Crowder (16), Cam Johnson (16), JaVale McGee (21) and Cam Payne (17) provided most of the goods through the Suns’ system against an uninspired defensive effort.

“Lot of guys stepped up,” Crowder said. “Our bench did a great job … We trust our depth and everybody in the locker room to come in and be players and that’s what happened tonight. You saw a lot of guys contribute to winning.”

A 25-24 first quarter lead for the Suns indicated their shorthanded offense might have too much to overcome, but Phoenix thoroughly handled the Celtics during the rest of the game, including a 32-15 second quarter that ended in a 25-9 run putting the Suns up 18 at the half.

Boston never threatened from there, possessing no gusto at the end of the aforementioned road trip.

Not counting last year’s season finale when Williams rested a few key players, Friday marked the first time in nearly two years since the Suns (21-4) played without both Booker and Ayton, a game from mid-December of 2019. That was during Ayton’s suspension in his second season, so if we rule that out and go off injury/illness, that’s all the way back to Ayton’s rookie year.

Phoenix had been making Ayton more of a focal point in the offense during Booker’s first three missed games, but with him out, they’d have to adapt again.

On Friday, it was back to more of the traditional great ball movement we’ve become accustomed to. The Suns attempted 38 three-pointers after reaching only 21 and 22 in the first two games without Booker. Nine of the 10 players in the rotation had at least two of those 38, including McGee, the starter in place of Ayton.

On that shot, when Williams was asked what was going through his head when it went up, he jokingly but not really jokingly replied with “you don’t want to know what was going through my head.”

Williams credited some of that big-time bump in generating 3s to Boston’s defensive scheme of collapsing to the paint, which is all McGee.

“I try not to get frustrated not getting it rolling because I roll hard, the corner cuts in, blocks me, somebody else is getting me — I got like three people,” McGee said of the defensive attention his rolls draw. “But he swings it over my head to the 3, I’m like, ‘I helped do that.’ That was a hockey assist, I would call it.

“You definitely have to know the game and know exactly what your impact is even if you don’t get a rebound, assist or a point. I always keep that mindset. If I go in there, screen, roll and a 3 happens, ‘OK, I made that happen because I was dynamically rolling.'”

The 13-year vet has flat-out been one of the Suns’ best players this year. He grabbed 15 rebounds along with those 21 points, plus two assists and blocks across 26 minutes.

McGee has an impressive ability this year to impact the game just as much as he produces points and rebounds. A few games in, it looked like it was going to be a mix of that and some “JaVale McGee Experience” of him trying to do far too much. He dialed that way back and has been awesome in a limited role.

Looking at the numbers per 36 minutes on the team, McGee is second in points (23.7) and first in rebounds (16.4).

The Suns were also again without Frank Kaminsky (right knee stress reaction), Abdel Nader (right knee injury management) and Dario Saric (torn right ACL), so Williams had the option of either going small or playing second-year big Jalen Smith behind McGee.

He went with the latter and made the very wise call of having Chris Paul out there for the majority of Smith’s minutes. Smith was getting lost in his first stint, at one point moving in the way of a Cam Payne drive, but got comfortable and played well in his second shift.

Smith is always going to be productive. His combination of athleticism, frame and motor is going to facilitate that. It’s just a matter of consistency in other areas.

He had seven points and nine rebounds in 22 minutes. Paul added 10 points and 12 assists.

Only three Celtics reached double figures compared to seven for the Suns. Tatum led the way for Boston with 24 points, and the team only manufactured 13 assists.

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