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Game Preview: Phoenix Suns host All-Star Isaiah Thomas, playoff-bound Celtics

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David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

What: Phoenix Suns (20-52, 3rd seed in lottery) vs. Boston Celtics (42-30, 4th seed in East)

When: 7:00pm AZ time

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, AZ

TV: FoxSports Arizona

Radio: 98.7 FM ArizonaSports

A year ago, the Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics were in the same boat: not quite good enough for the playoffs, but not quite bad enough to earn a high draft pick. They had roughly identical records, with the likely prospect of drafting in the back half of the lottery. Old friends Danny Ainge, GM of the Celtics, and Ryan McDonough, GM of the Suns, worked out a deal where the Celtics would take supersub Isaiah Thomas off the Suns hands for a future draft pick.

The thing is, Isaiah Thomas wasn't supposed to be a difference maker to put a team into the playoffs. The 5'9" mighty-mite shoot-first, ball-pounding point guard was efficient on offense but too small to defend enough to hold down a starting job long term. A team with Isaiah Thomas would be fun to watch, and if he's one of your top players then you're stuck drafting 10th - 13th for the foreseeable future.

Yet Thomas defied even more expectations. He first helped nudge the Celtics into last year's playoffs, and now as their best player he's leading them to a home court advantage (4th seed at the moment). Thomas is putting up career high numbers again while starting 69 of 72 games for the 42-30 Celtics.

Celtics update

The 5'9" Thomas is averaging 22.2 points and 6.4 assists this season, and is joined in the back court by 6'2" Avery Bradley and 6'4" Marcus Smart. Maybe size doesn't actually matter: the Celtics have the league's 4th ranked defense and 9th ranked offense with those three as the primary back court mates.

The Celtics are fortunate to have a coach in Brad Stevens who not only established their detail-oriented, tough minded culture two years ago while losing a ton of games, but has become one of the best game managers and scheme builders in the league without a transcendent star to bail you out at the end of tight games.

Stevens has turned a small back court into a plus, and a front court lacking a dominant player into a cohesive unit.

Draft picks

Oh, and their 2013 trade with the Nets gives them Brooklyn's first round pick this year, unprotected. That's the pick the Suns are bopping back and forth with. Yes, Suns fans, the upstart Celtics who need a star will end up with about the same odds at drafting one as the Suns. Maybe better.

This trade for the Celtics is even better than the Suns trade in 2005 of Joe Johnson. Remember when the Suns were on the verge of toppling the Spurs in the second round of the 2007 playoffs AND were likely to get Hawks' first round draft pick? The Suns had Joakim Noah on the brain. Pairing him with Amare on the front line could have extended the Suns' window for years. But then the Hawks got lucky, jumped up to #3 and kept the pick, and eventually the Suns settled for Robin Lopez in 2008 instead.

The Celtics, on the other hand, hit the motherload with the desperate Nets in 2013. In exchange for a couple of tough years (trading Garnett and Pierce to the Nets), the Celtics now own the Nets' top picks for NEXT THREE YEARS. Yes, the Nets who are one of the very worst teams in the NBA and have no projections for improvement. The Celtics get the Nets' 2016 and 2018 first round picks outright, and get to swap 2017. Good lord, the Thomas-led Celtics might have half a decade coming to them of Top-5 picks AND Top-5 playoff seeds.

But that's not all. Boston also gets Dallas' first round pick this year (protected 1-7, likely to be in the 13-18 range), and finally gets Minnesota's two second-round picks the Suns traded for Brandan Wright, which were originally obtained for... Robin Lopez.

Life is good in Boston.

Suns update

Forgetting for a moment the Kings fiasco last night, the Suns were 6-7 in the prior 13 games. But that was a soft schedule stretch more than anything. Despite being almost .500, the Suns still had posted the league's 27th ranked offense and 18th ranked defense. Certainly an improvement, but nothing to get excited about.

Particularly, the Suns continued insistence on pairing Alex Len and Tyson Chandler in the front court has been a real drain on everything but box score player stats. Len had a stretch of 10 straight 10+ rebound games (eight of those double-doubles) next to Chandler, while Chandler returned to producing a near double-double himself.

Yet on the scoreboard, they posted an ugly -15.3 points per 100 possessions (roughly 100 possessions = one whole game) in a starting lineup with P.J. Tucker, Brandon Knight and Devin Booker. Their offensive rating was 84.5 points with a defense allowing 99.8.

Just the simple 2-man pairing of Len and Chandler during that stretch, no matter who else was around them, was still a -10 points per 100 possessions.

Why would Earl continue pairing Len and Chandler? Let's take a look at the numbers during that stretch.

  • Len/Chandler pairing: 20 minutes per game, -10 per 100 possessions (84-99 score)
  • Len/Teletovic pairing: 10 minutes per game, +0.2 per 100 possessions (111-111 score)
  • Len/Leuer pairing: 4 minutes per game, -19 per 100 possessions (96-115 score)
  • Chandler/Leuer pairing: 1 minute per game, +9 per 100 possessions (130-121 score)
  • Chandler/Teletovic pairing: 4 minutes per game, -11.2 per 100 possessions (113-124 score)

During that stretch, Len and Chandler shared the court for about 20 minutes per game - more than any other big man pairing. You could argue that Jon Leuer should have gotten a much bigger chance to play with Chandler, but that would mean benching a 22 year old for a journeyman or benching your highly paid aging center who's already pouting over the team's terrible record.

Frankly, I don't have a problem with the Len/Chandler pairing. It gives Alex Len all the minutes he can handle while giving him some lineup protection for box outs and bodying the other team's big men. And it gives Chandler a sense of pride of at least being a go-to guy for a team struggling to find anything to inspire them. Benching Chandler might just make things a whole lot worse. Benching Len might just stunt his growth. Going with the very best pairings (Len/Teletovic, Chandler/Leuer) might win too many games.

Keep those guys together FOR NOW. But don't enter next season with a Len/Chandler front court pairing please.

Game Prediction

I predict that Suns fans will cheer for Isaiah Thomas when he's introduced. I also predict that the 10,000 Celtics fans in the arena will cheer for every made basket by the Celtics, and once again it will feel like a road game.

Still, I expect the Suns will fight hard and make the game close. Devin Booker might have a tough time against Avery Bradley's stifling defense, but he will give it all he's got. Brandon Knight (assuming he's over the stomach bug) should be able to play Thomas to a standstill on the scoreboard.

Knight is questionable with the stomach issue, while Chandler is questionable with the back spasms. For the Celtics, Jae Crowder is out with an ankle issue.

In the end, Thomas and the Celtics prevail by about 10 points.