In watching the Phoenix Suns versus the Boston Celtics on Saturday night, you wonder whether the difference between a high playoff seed and a bottom of the barrel lottery team is not quite as wide a chasm as one would assume.
Of course, the Boston Celtics are not your typical high playoff seed. The Celtics don't have a transcendent star or two or three in their lineup like Cleveland, Golden State or San Antonio. Their best player is Isaiah Thomas, an All-Star this season but not a perennial choice, yet they are 43-30 and sitting in 4th in the East.
The rest of the East, which appears stronger than the West this season on the whole, seems to have gotten the memo that you can win with teamwork, good coaching and togetherness. The Raptors' best players are Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The Pacers have Paul George. The Heat have an aging Dwyane Wade. The Hornets have Kemba Walker. The Pistons have Andre Drummond. None of these teams are stacked with multiple high-end Hall of Fame type players.
So it's no wonder the Boston Celtics, extremely well-coached and motivated, can excel in this environment. They bring a gang mentality to every game, and collectively claw and scrap their way to wins. Even last-second wins after blowing a 21-point lead to a 20-win team missing two of their big men.
"We're a family," Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. "And when we feel like our backs are against the wall, it's us against the world and we need to pick it up."
Marcus Smart - at 6'4" and thick, basically a bigger version of Eric Bledsoe - embodies that mold. Smart bullied the Suns guards into tough shots, scrapped for rebounds and found himself in every scrum for the ball.
In the final minutes as the game was in the balance, Smart found the rebound on at least two different occasions despite being surrounded by two or three Suns.
"Marcus played hard the entire game," Celtics guard Avery Bradley said. "And me, personally, I respect that. Tonight, he wasn't really making shots and he continued to affect the game in a lot of different ways. He really helped our team get the win tonight."
I talk about Smart because that's what Eric Bledsoe brings to the game. Bledsoe fights on defense, bullies the opposing guards, grabs tough rebounds and makes a difference on the final score even when he's not shooting well. We haven't seen Bledsoe in months due to the knee injury, so we forget these things. The Suns have been and will be a lot better when Bledsoe returns healthy. I can't wait to see Bledsoe and Booker in the same lineup.
Back to last night's game.
Weird Suns offense
The Suns were missing Tyson Chandler (back) and Jon Leuer (stomach illness). So they started the game with P.J. Tucker as power forward with Alex Len at center. The stomach bug also affected Knight and Price, but they fought through it and played.
This plan might have been fine had Devin Booker and Brandon Knight made their outside shots, but in the first half they collectively went 1-11 from the floor. Booker was in foul trouble the whole first half and Knight was in one of his usual shooting funks. The Celtics hounding defense from Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart really impacted the guards as well.
The Celtics defended the perimeter by switching on every pick and roll, meaning the opposing big man would pick up the guard and the opposing guard would defend the Suns' big man as he rolled toward the hoop or popped out to the weak side three point line.
This plan worked because the Suns guards couldn't break down the opposing big man on the perimeter to get, and make, the shot. And when the guards drove to the lane, the Celtics rotating defense would effectively cut off the rim.
The only weakness in the Celtics defense was after the switch, a Suns big man would have a small Celtics guard defending him in the post. So in the second half we got to see a plethora of post-ups by Mirza Teletovic, a sight no one wants to see but effective when the defender is Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley or Marcus Smart. Teletovic missed 7 of his 8 three-point tries but still had 17 points in the game and helped the Suns overcome their deficit by scoring down low.
"We did a great job defending the three-point line," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "And what we gave up were some of those Teletovic posts as a result."
Knight, Booker and Teletovic combined to make only 4 of 24 three point attempts, but the Suns still clawed back into the game in the second half to twice cut the Celtics lead to one.
But it was a final Knight three-point attempt that airballed (he finished 2-12 from distance), and gave the Celtics that end-of-game free-throw parade to seal the deal.
Devin Booker led the Suns 4th quarter come back from 10 down with an array of great plays to get the Celtics on their heels.
For the game, Devin Booker scored 21 points and dished 4 assists while Brandon Knight had 19 points and 3 assists. But the eyeball test 100% agrees with the tweet-iments above.
Final 30 seconds
But after Suns pulled back to within one point, 98-97, the Suns final possessions came up empty.
First, the Suns had the ball with about 30 seconds left, but the play call broke down on an aggressive Celtics defense, and Brandon Knight responded by heaving a 30-foot three attempt early in the clock. The ball hit nothing but the bottom of the net. The outside of the net.
After the Celtics made only 1 of 2 free throws on the ensuing possession/immediate foul, coach Earl Watson turned to 19 year old Devin Booker to close out the game. He basically told Booker to take the ball at the top of the court and figure out a way to score.
Unfortunately, Booker missed an 18-footer on one possession and then later got blocked on a drive to the rim.
"I was just trying to get to the line and get contact," Booker said. "They were being aggressive with me. But I found out now that in this league, late in ball games like that, a ref is not going to call a foul so you just have to shoot your shot and can't be looking for any type of foul."
Booker crossed over Evan Turner on the drive and got Turner on his right hip as he drive the lane. But Booker didn't get any lift on the floater, and released it low enough for Turner to reach over and block it. There was a little contact, but not enough for a foul call. The block was clean.
After that, the game was over. The Suns were out of timeouts and couldn't get off a clean shot.
Of course, P.J. Tucker wants none of this lottery business. He's disgusted by the team's up and down efforts. This time, it's on consecutive nights that the Suns looked nothing close to consistent.
"We'll beat a good team," he said. "And then come back and lose to a bad team so I'm not going to say we're building on anything. But we've just got to try and consistently give the same effort every night, whether we win or lose."
All in all, it was a perfect ending for a Suns team that needs every loss it can get to improve their chance to draft a difference-maker in June.
After consecutive losses coupled with a Nets win over the Pacers, the Suns now are 1.5 games "ahead" of the Nets for the 3rd worst record. This stomach bug that knocked out Brandon Knight on Friday, Jon Leuer on Saturday and affected Ronnie Price both nights couldn't have come at a better time, amiright?
Okay one more Final Word
Suns beat writer Paul Coro caught up to Isaiah Thomas to get his take on coming back to Phoenix for the second time after playing half a season here.
"It was different," Thomas said. "It was more like, ‘I miss this place.' Even being in Phoenix, the warm weather and the people. Everybody when I got to the arena was showing a lot of love, like the workers and all that. It's a place that I like. I like the city. When I was here, they showed me a good time.
"There's no bad feelings no more. It was just that one game. Now, it's just another team, another game."
Thomas scored 26 points and grabbed 6 rebounds on Saturday night. He was the catalyst of a couple of Celtics runs to get big leads in the game, but wasn't really a factor in the final score this time as much as Evan Turner (block) and Marcus Smart (hustle).
Suns GM Ryan McDonough admitted recently his one mulligan would be to take back that Thomas trade, which Thomas appreciated hearing. As Boise Boy Roy pointed out in my article yesterday, there's a plausible scenario where Thomas stays here while Dragic is traded and Knight is not acquired, and the Suns still might have gotten Booker anyway (leaving Suns with Bledsoe, Booker, Thomas and the Laker pick). Sure that's a perfect ending. But I have a hard time believing Booker would've lasted even one more pick, and I can't believe Thomas/Bledsoe backcourt would lose 18 of their last 28 games last season. And I can't believe Thomas would be happy coming off the bench forever, which would happen if he'd stayed. And there's no way the Suns get another Top-5 pick on their own this year with Thomas still on the team. I just see that as staying on the treadmill of mediocrity.
Still, it's a bit sad to see the Suns lost what turned out to be a really good guy who just wanted to be the most important guard on the roster. He got it in Boston, and is leading them to the playoffs.