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Suns 116, Celtics 98 — No stars, no letdown


PHOENIX — A couple months down the line when we look back on the Dec. 30 game on Phoenix’s schedule, “Suns 116, Celtics 98” will look much better than it was in real life.

The game notes say the Suns joined last year’s world champion Lakers as the only teams to sweep a season series from the Celtics since the Big Three joined up prior to the 2007-08 campaign. But anybody who watched this game knows that the Suns beat a woefully undermanned Boston team missing Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce that wouldn’t contend for the eighth spot in the East with the lineup they threw out there.

“It’s a win over the Celtics, I mean, we’ll take it,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “They don’t put an asterisk by it saying that Kevin Garnett wasn’t here, so we’ll take it any way we can get it.”

But in terms of statement wins, you can put a big fast asterisk next to it. This version of the Celtics was one of the worst teams I’ve seen come into US Airways Center this year, with Ray Allen struggling to the tune of 4-for-13 while the rest of the Big Three sat out with injuries.

Still, the Suns ended 2009 with a bang, taking down the last two NBA champions and the two teams leading their respective conferences at the start of the week by a combined 33 points.

The Celtics surely missed Pierce, but it looked like they missed Garnett more. Amare Stoudemire opened the game with a 18-point, six-rebound first quarter on 9-for-10 shooting and could have gone for 50, according to Channing Frye, if it weren’t for foul trouble. Frye picked up the slack from there, combining with STAT for 52 points (26 apiece, a season high for Frye) and 17 boards.

Frye drilled 6-of-10 threes for his fourth six-trey game of the season, tying New York’s Danilo Gallinari in that department. Gallo is the only player to hit more long balls than Frye’s 84 makes, and Channing will get to the century mark that Kerr predicted he would reach at season’s end by the middle of January.

“I think it’s just different teams start out with a game plan, and when STAT gets that much room, I mean he’s No. 1 in voting for centers in All-Stars, so he knows how to finish down there,” Frye said. “Then the natural tendency is to help and we just kept feeding him and feeding him … the whole first half.

“I just tried to put myself in the right position and just let it ride. They played the screen and roll a certain way, and I had to shoot it.”

Just as impressive were the 10 boards Frye pulled down, making this the third 20-10 game of his career and first in Phoenix. This also marks his first stretch of consecutive double-doubles since 2008 with the Blazers.

Frye’s 39:32 made him the only Sun to crack the 30-minute mark, as he joined a group of reserves in the fourth to stretch a lead for the second straight game.

At the other end the Celtics tried to establish Kendrick Perkins down low, and it worked about as well as you would expect it to. The Celtics shot 42.2 percent from the floor, and aside from a hot stretch from Eddie House (team-high 19 points), Boston didn’t get much going.

“I think the bigs did a really good job,” Gentry said. “We didn’t really have to go out and double team. When you don’t have to double team the post it really helps your defense because you’re not in rotations.”

Most importantly the Suns seem to have regained their swagger after starting December 5-9 before these back-to-back impact wins.

Following their 14-3 start, forward Grant Hill said the team started to read its press clippings and really believe they were as good as everybody was saying they were.

That in turn led the Suns to believe they could win just by lacing up their shoes (I’m looking at you New York and Golden State games) and it also caused them to play without that same killer instinct they possessed in winning every close game in November (I’m looking at you Dallas, Denver, Portland and Oklahoma City games).

“The main thing is it’s about us,” Hill said. “Really it’s about us and sticking to our principles, coming out with a lot of energy, coming out with a sense of focus, having that edge. We kind of had that early and then started to … think that we had arrived, and we need to continue to keep that edge, that feeling that we have something to prove.”

Every season will inevitably contain some ebbs and flows, but the Suns took that to the supreme by playing over their heads in November and then underachieving in December.

It’s doubtful they will be able to maintain the “edge” that propelled them to their 14-3 start and the last two victories for the remainder of the season, but this losing month should serve as a real learning experience.

It was good to see the Suns take a battered Boston club seriously, never letting their 20-point second-half lead slip below 12 after making a habit of blowing such leads earlier in the month.

It’s also worth noting that as we prepare to welcome in 2010 the Suns sit in the No. 3 spot in the West and have already finished playing Boston, Cleveland and Orlando and have just one date left with the Lakers, a home game before which the Suns have almost a full week off. Of course, the glass half empty viewpoint says the Suns are just two games in the loss column away from falling out of the playoff picture, but the point is the schedule only gets easier from here.

Despite a couple hiccups last week against the Cavs and Thunder, the Suns have established themselves as a dominant home team in 2009, tying Cleveland and Denver for league-best 13-2 marks. For the Suns, that includes wins over the Lakers, Celtics, Magic and Spurs.

“I think when we play at home we expect to win every game,” Gentry said. “It doesn’t matter who we play because I think it’s very important that you establish something in your home building. We expected to win these two games, to be honest with you.”

The Suns have now pinned opponent season highs on the last two teams to visit US Airways Center, and they own half of the four 110-point games yielded by Boston’s stingy defense all year, a unit that allows 91.2 points per game when Phoenix isn’t the opponent. Boston had not given up as many points in a regular-season game as the Suns scored tonight since St. Patrick’s Day.

That output helped the Suns record their first set of back-to-back wins in December at long last after an incredibly inconsistent first four weeks of the month, and they will charge into 2010 feeling good about themselves after what had been a mostly mediocre month.

“It’s a great thing,” Stoudemire said. “I think for the most part it builds our confidence. Second, we know how good we can become, and we’ve just got to keep working to become that team. If we’re hot, if we shoot the ball well, it’s tough to beat us.”

And 1

  • I know the Z Man will love this stat: the Suns have scored at least 116 points in each game since Leandro Barbosa returned from a sprained left ankle, averaging 121.3 points per game during that stretch and going 3-1. The Suns had hit 116 in just two of the month’s first 12 games without LB, averaging 103.4 points per game during that time and going 4-8. Barbosa has scored in double figures in each of those contests, averaging 12.5 ppg, including a month-high 17 points against Boston. Overall the Suns are 15-3 with Barbosa and 6-9 without him.
  • The Suns are now 10 games over .500 for the first time since Dec. 5, when they beat Sacramento before losing consecutive games in Los Angeles and Dallas. The Suns were 10 games over .500 only on the final day of last season.
  • The Suns have averaged 117.8 points per game in four home games since Cleveland ended their string of reaching the century mark in 36 straight in US Airways Center. Still, I’d say 40 of 41 isn’t half bad.
  • Phoenix is just the fifth team to win more than one game in a season against the Celtics since The Big Three joined forces. Washington, Orlando, Cleveland and the Lakers are the others.