EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns’ hand forced by Boston Celtics in home loss

Mar 9, 2024, 10:26 PM

Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal...

Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal of the Phoenix Suns. (Jeremy Schnell/Arizona Sports)

(Jeremy Schnell/Arizona Sports)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns were outclassed by the Boston Celtics on Saturday in a 117-107 final that in the grand scheme of things didn’t have a ton to do with a talent disparity between the two teams.

The NBA-best Celtics were terrific in the margins, as all elite teams are, and that plus a few smart tactical choices to capitalize on no Devin Booker (right ankle sprain) was the difference.

Boston led the way in points off turnovers (16-8) and second-chance points (17-8).

“I thought we battled,” Suns head coach Frank Vogel said. “I was proud of how hard we fought. I didn’t like how many loose balls we weren’t getting in the beginning of the game and how we rebounded. Gotta have better urgency against the team with the best record in the NBA but I thought we caught ourselves and played a spirited game throughout the rest of it.”

The Celtics were using a “let them beat you” look on defense, trying as best as possible to not help off shooters and instead allow Bradley Beal and Kevin Durant to go at 1-on-1 matchups and traditional ball screen coverage without much over-helping.

After Grayson Allen knocked down a combined 16 3-pointers in the last two games, Boston’s design wasn’t going to have any of that anymore. Because of how many 3s it takes in its own right, the most in the league, the Celtics were going to win that part of the math battle and be in the clear unless Phoenix’s two healthy stars went absolutely berserk.

Durant scorched this, shooting 18-of-26 for a season-high 45 points with 10 rebounds, six assists and six turnovers. He was magnificent. Beal got going more in the second half to shoot 10-of-20 for 25 points with four assists and one turnover, a very good game for him.

But that wasn’t enough.

Stints with the starters in for both teams included Boston wing Jaylen Brown defending Jusuf Nurkic, a successful effort to limit the amount of plays Nurkic was involved in as the hub. If Nurkic went to screen or engage in a handoff, Brown would simply switch it to cancel out the benefits. Phoenix’s Royce O’Neale became the primary screener in most of these minutes since he was defended by Boston’s Al Horford.

And in the lineups at the start of the second and fourth quarters that have plagued the Suns a lot this year, Boston often planted expert defender Jrue Holiday on a center, shutting down Phoenix’s primary screening actions since no team would willingly put Holiday into the play. Because the Suns play Bol Bol at the 4 in those looks, it allowed Boston to deploy its big on him. Backup Suns center Drew Eubanks was -20 in 11 minutes.

“We had some stretches where it was poor but it’s a unique defense to go against and I thought for the most part our guys had a playoff-like intelligence trying to put the right people in the right action,” Vogel said of it.

Vogel’s last-ditch effort at neutralizing this was going small with Bol at the 5 in the early fourth quarter, taking in the potential repercussions elsewhere, like on the glass where a giant Celtics team does well (fourth in REB%). Nurkic remained on the bench in place of Eric Gordon when the starters came back in.

Boston was essentially betting on taking the punches from Beal and Durant outbursts well enough via its own consistency over the course of a full game. Phoenix cut the deficit down to five and three at points in the third quarter, only for Boston to quickly balloon its advantage back into a safer place.

The Suns were able to form those mini-rallies off either Celtics misses or turnovers but Boston put the biscuit in the basket enough to not let that be sustainable. Jayson Tatum’s mismatch hunting on switches for the Celtics grew their advantage in the fourth to 15 before that fizzled and Phoenix got within five again at 3:55 remaining.

The Celtics then had three more scoreless trips but a Durant missed 3 in semi-transition on a decent look, another Durant missed triple that was more of a bail-out attempt and open Eric Gordon corner 3 that didn’t go down was Phoenix’s brief window. After Gordon’s miss, Horford drilled his own open corner 3 to put Boston back up eight with 1:54 to go. That was it.

“They stay home a lot on 3s as well so you gotta figure out where your shot’s gonna come from if you just can’t catch-and-shoot,” Durant said. “They got a solid strategy over there. It’s one of those strategies where they might be playing a bad game early on but over the course of the game it’ll come back around for them and I think that’s what happened. Late in the game they were able to make some shots.”

Those two decisions are an example of what awaits Phoenix in the postseason, where the top squads will have more precision exploiting its weaknesses. And it’s some of the trickle-down effect of Booker being out besides not having the contributions of one of the best players in the world. These are the types of gameplans the Suns could beat rather efficiently if they were on their P’s and Q’s all night as well, the type of consistency they lack.

Boston wasn’t at full strength, either, without Kristaps Porzingis (right hamstring tightness). It improves now to 14-3 when he sits, so obviously not quite the same as Phoenix’s 6-8 mark without Booker.

Tatum wasn’t quite efficient, 11-of-28 for 29 points, but made big plays across 42 minutes and added 10 rebounds, seven assists and four turnovers. Brown’s 27 points (10-of-21) were much needed. Boston was 15-of-39 (38.5%) from 3 to Phoenix’s 9-of-31 (29%).

Allen (3-of-8) and O’Neale (1-for-9) struggled to hit shots with how Boston was cutting off the Suns’ ball movement.

Booker was upgraded to questionable on Friday’s injury report, further generating optimism that his return is near. Phoenix flies to Cleveland on Sunday to take on a shorthanded Cavaliers squad the next day before Round 2 against Boston on Thursday. If all goes well with Booker’s ankle while he travels, pencil in one of those two fixtures for him.

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