The Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics just ruined everyone’s happy hour.
An early tip time meant Phoenix fans got off work just in time to watch the Celtics and Suns brick their way to the final buzzer. Though Phoenix emerged from the muck with an 87-80 victory, both squads should be mortified by their performances tonight. This wasn’t so much a basketball game as it way a slap fight with the rim. The Suns shot just 42.5% from the floor and missed 21 of their 26 shots from downtown. Not to be outdone, the Celtics shots just 31% for the game and missed 18 from deep.
Phoenix stole a narrow victory thanks to a clutch performance from an unlikely source and some tough defense when it mattered most. With the game tied at 80 and under a minute to play, Eric Bledsoe isolated at the top of the key. With the shot clock winding down he fired a long jumper from just inside the arc which missed off the back iron. That’s when none other than rookie Alex Len rose up to tip in the rebound and draw the foul. Just like Coach Hornacek drew it up. He hit his free throw, and the Suns got two stops and two fast break buckets to put the game out of reach. There were no timeouts called by either side after Len’s three point play so a game which felt like it lasted half a lifetime was closed out in the blink of an eye, stunning the home crowd and leaving the victorious Suns with some semblance of momentum and excitement.
This was an ugly game. There’s no denying that. And considering the way Phoenix won it, it’s a game that will stand out in the team’s mind for a while. And that is a very good thing because this won’t be the last time the Suns have to win ugly this year.
The NBA season is like a racetrack. The course is pristine at the start of the meet. The dirt is meticulously raked and smooth. The horses fly over it with unimaginable speed. But as the meet goes on, the track becomes more and more sloppy, and the horses slow down. The races become more about who can navigate the mud and the muck and less about which horse has the most speed. Tonight the Suns got jammed up against the rail and had to fight hard to cross the finish ahead of an inferior opponent. Early in the year, they would have run past a team like the Celtics with ease. But down the stretch of the NBA season, speed alone won’t win games. With their bulldog back in the starting lineup the Suns remembered how to fight and earned themselves a much needed win. For more on this game, let’s answer our three preview questions.
Will Bledsoe take another step forward?
The answer is yes. In fact, I think he may have taken two. In just 29 minutes, Bledsoe scored 17 points on 50% shooting. He grabbed 10 boards, one off of his career high, and he handed our four assists. His jumper still hasn’t returned, but Bledsoe got to the basket with ease and looked more and more comfortable as the game went on. In the first half, he got a breakaway and opted for a casual lay in. It looked as though he was taking precautions with his knee. In the second half, he got another breakaway and tried to throw it down hard it after taking a foul. His confidence was blooming on a near play-by-play basis. After an And 1 lay in with three minutes to play, Bledsoe busted out his flex pose as if to show the fans, his teammates, and everyone watching at home “I’m back.” As I said before, Bledsoe is the Suns’ bulldog, and his presence transforms this team into an entirely different animal, one that should have the Grizzlies and Mavericks looking over their shoulder for the next month.
Can Miles Plumlee find his double-double form?
This was a bit of a nightmare game for Plumlee. Two quick fouls in the first quarter limited him to just 11 minutes in the first half. When he was on the floor, he was outworked in all phases by Kris Humphries, Jared Sullinger, and Kelly Olynyk. The Celtics bigs gobbled up offensive rebounds and limited Miles offensively. In 20+ minutes, he attempted only three shots, one of which was waved off for a cylinder violation. And then with nine minutes left to play in the game, Plumlee grabbed a defensive rebound and got scraped in the eye by a reaching Olynyk. He dropped to the floor clutching his face. After receiving some attention from the Celtics’ team doctor, Plumlee returned to bench with just some redness and swelling in his eye, but didn’t return to the game. The only positive takeaway from his night was that his absence put Alex Len in position to finish a close game and come up with what turned out to be the game-winning basket.
Can the Suns start fast?
Surprisingly yes. Phoenix came out on fire, which was a nice change of pace from their recent sluggishness out of the gate. They put up 29 points while holding the Celtics to just 22, and shot 57% from the field. Goran Dragic was the man leading the charge, netting 11 points in the first 12 minutes. Dragic finished with 20 for the game. His newly returned running mate Bledose had six of his own. But after their hot start, Phoenix shot just 37% from the floor while turning the ball over 13 times. If it weren’t for the Celtics shooting under 29% over the same period, the Suns would have taken their third loss in a row. The cushion the Suns gained in the first and the pace they established with 10 fast break points in the opening period helped them ride out the storm that was the final three quarters of this game.
- The Suns were horribly out of rhythm from the second quarter on tonight. It would be easy to chalk this up to Eric Bledsoe’s return affecting the rest of the roster, but I tonight’s struggles were more attributable to Coach Hornacek’s truly bizarre rotations. It was clear he wanted to limit Bledsoe’s time on the floor, which was the smart thing to do. Bled played a little over 14 minutes in both halves, a solid total for a player only two games into his return. But the way Hornacek deployed the rest of the guards was more than a little strange. Dragic played the entire first quarter, but then sat until the 2:30 mark of the 2nd. With Goran on the bench, the Suns were outscored 18 to 12 and shot just 26% from the field. That allowed Boston to get back into the game and dragged the Suns into a slog fest. Hornacek then turned around and played Dragic all 24 minutes of the second half. I can’t argue with that move. For as ice cold as Phoenix was, there’s no way they win if Dragic goes to the bench. But with a more consistent rotation, the Suns may not have been in that position in the first place.
- Gerald Green was pressing entirely too much in his return to Boston. Originally drafted by the Celtics, Green is now on his seventh team in seven years. But he still has a place in the hearts of Celtics’ fans. He rewarded their acknowledgement with a 2-of-9 shooting performance where he looked constantly hesitant and off balance both mentally and physically. Green just could not find his rhythm and was more of a liability than an asset in this game.
- PJ Tucker had a double-double with 11 points and 10 boards in his return from a 1-game suspension for his altercation with Blake Griffin on Monday. PJ drew a technical for a questionable loose ball foul in the second half. He needs to watch his temper and his reactions lest he build a reputation as a hot head. That’s a rep a defensive stopper can ill afford to have.