Phoenix Suns face pair of top tests vs. ‘elite of the elite’ Boston Celtics

Mar 8, 2024, 4:34 PM | Updated: 5:14 pm

Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics and Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics react after a win o...

Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics and Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics react after a win over the Philadelphia 76ers at TD Garden on February 27, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

(Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns have to brace for impact. They host the NBA-best Boston Celtics at home on Saturday before a four-game road trip on the East Coast that features Boston again, plus the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks, two other top-tier Eastern Conference foes.

Phoenix will be fortunate to come out with three wins, especially while Devin Booker (right ankle sprain) is recovering. It seems like he should be back by the end of the trip, potentially ready for Thursday’s Round 2 against Boston. Booker was listed as questionable for Saturday’s injury report, an indication he might return even earlier than that.

That would be quite the luxury.

Boston leads the league in offensive rating and is second in defensive rating. That and a 48-14 record make the Celtics the gold standard of this regular season.

“Boston is electric, man. It’s like, what can’t they do? … They’re the elite of the elite, the No. 1 team in the NBA right now,” Suns guard Bradley Beal said Friday.

The Celtics were able to significantly bolster their roster this offseason with the additions of guard Jrue Holiday and center Kristaps Porzingis on the trade market.

Holiday is an All-World “star in your role” type of player, an All-Star last year that is perfectly fine taking a step back this year alongside guard Derrick White, who is cut from the same cloth and is one of the most underrated players in the NBA.

Porzingis went from emerging as a star on the New York Knicks to going through an adjustment with the Dallas Mavericks he wasn’t quite ready for before a stop with the Washington Wizards allowed him to reset his value as a terrific shot-maker and solid rim protector. The only question with him remains health, and he’s managed to play in 46 of Boston’s 62 games thus far.

And that trio plays off the long-time duo of All-Stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, a pair of star two-way wings any organization would dream of having just one of. Boston’s had them together now for seven seasons and they are just entering their prime. They are armed with a ridiculous amount of postseason experience. Brown now at the age of 27 has played in 105 playoff games, the third-most by any player in NBA history 26 or younger, trailing just Kobe Bryant (119) and Tony Parker (122). Tatum’s 94 by his age 24 season is also third behind Bryant and Parker.

Offensively, Boston’s got two high-end playmaking wings alongside two guards that can take on occasional on-ball duties in a pinch with a shot-making 5 that has an inside-outside nature to his game. All five shoot 3s well. Defensively, Holiday and White are two premier perimeter defenders. Brown and Tatum are darn good there too, something head coach Frank Vogel wanted to make sure to note on Friday while he was complimenting how great Holiday and White are. And then Porzingis rounds out the interior.

They are an absolute monster. A large, versatile and incredibly skilled monster.

“They had an incredible year thus far,” Suns forward Kevin Durant said Thursday. “Best starting five in the league by far. … They got a big lineup with versatile guys up and down their lineup and they’ve been around each other for a while now so they understand one another.”

The reps against this level of competition are good timing with the emergence of Beal in a, as Durant called it on Thursday, “traditional point guard” role.

Vogel credited Beal for keeping the Suns organized in that floor general role, one Booker has mostly commanded over the course of the year. The coach, however, said there was a tweak a while back in the season when the Big 3 was whole and they wanted to get Booker more off the ball. It’s a balance the Suns will have to get right once Booker returns, as he’s a tremendous point guard in his own right and was still running a good bit of Phoenix’s offense prior to his absence, but more Beal on the ball certainly makes the offense more dynamic.

With Booker’s injury, this provides Beal even more opportunities to take the offense for a spin. The big change and how Beal has kept the gears of the offense spinning is pressure on the rim.


“To have somebody that can touch the paint with the shooting we have around him, it’s huge value in that,” Vogel said Friday. “He’s doing both. … He’s quarterbacking and getting us organized and playing like a true point guard while also being an elite paint toucher and generating the offense with his game.”

It’s no coincidence that Grayson Allen and Jusuf Nurkic are coming off big-time performances in the same week that Beal has been providing this to the offense.

“I enjoy it. I’ve embraced the role a lot more,” Beal said. “I see that was kind of a need we have for the team, is the ability to attack the paint and get in the paint.”

Does his mindset change in the role?

“Yes and no,” Beal said. “I still am (in) attack mode, I still have the mindset of a scorer and still have that ability but also understand that I have to be able to generate shots for us and get us good quality looks and find ways to get guys open.”

He’s definitely doing the lead guard thing of gauging the feel of the game. That’s an extremely difficult skill to develop and perfect over time. Beal really benefits from his experience to help with that.

“Just a flow, man,” Beal said. “I’m a rhythm guy too so I understand everybody loves to be involved, everybody loves to get shots, everybody needs to have some touches. … When I come down, it’s obviously K. I always think K first. Where can we get him the ball and kind of reading his energy and if he needs a break I’ll go in attack mode or kind of find Grayson or see what Nurk wants to do. It’s kind of a read at the same time. I have really good continuity with Nurk and trust his ability to be able to pass any playmake too.”

Putting that to the test against the title favorites will be another step forward.

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