PHOENIX — You will not see an uglier 2:06 from the Phoenix Suns this season than we got in the second quarter of a 125-98 loss to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday.
Phoenix, down 12 with seven minutes to go in the first half, already showed signs on both ends of the court that it didn’t have any rhythm or intensity. The offense was forcing shots and lacked flow. The defense wasn’t getting physical and allowed the Celtics (21-5) to impose their will.
What came next was a 12-0 run with five straight bad Suns (16-9) turnovers and five consecutive unacceptable Celtics baskets we had to fully flesh out.
Chris Paul ran a pick-and-roll with Deandre Ayton, and instead of taking an open floater, he forced a lob to Ayton that was deflected away by Boston and stolen. Celtics forward Grant Williams then had an airball on a 3 land right in his lap for a quick lay-in just before the shot clock expired.
After that, Devin Booker curled around his usual off-ball action on the left side of the court heading to his right at the top of the key. Booker received the ball and briefly hesitated, something he almost never does. He turned it over, the Celtics ran it out in transition, and after Boston’s Jaylen Brown missed a layup, his teammate Derrick White was there before any other Sun running back to get an easy putback.
Ayton got a post touch the next time down, and instead of spinning towards the baseline and basket where he established position, he spun away and towards the help. That’s where White crept in to grab the ball and take it from him.
The Suns’ transition defense saw all five defenders get back, but no one picked up Williams in the corner. From the time White passed him the ball, Williams had 3.1 seconds to get his shot off (yes, I timed it). Williams took a dribble to get extra comfortable and there was a half-closeout by Paul as the 3-pointer went in.
That brought on a timeout, a prayer to cleanse what was ailing Phoenix. It was not answered.
Out of the break, Paul isolated on Williams, attempting to create separation. Williams stuck on him, and when Paul threw a quick kick-out to Torrey Craig in the corner, he set a moving screen for an offensive foul.
Boston for its next go ran a set play to exploit a goof in switching by Phoenix, a result that required point guard Marcus Smart to not even dribble the ball after he caught it on the right wing. He stood there, watched White release from some screening to the weak-side corner and hit him on a dime for another open Boston 3 that went down.
It was then Booker who got a ball screen from Ayton off the make going to his right. That triggered Boston’s double team at the elbow that left Craig open on the near-side wing. White, the assistant defender on the back line, faked a closeout to Craig before beating him into a pass for Mikal Bridges in the corner that White snatched.
Boston’s offense in semi-transition with the Suns back on defense only required a quick pitch pass and screen by Smart for Brown fading towards the baseline after Brown cut at the play past an unsuspecting Craig.
That was over 126 seconds. The Suns’ deficit was 24, one that grew to 27 for halftime after it was 26 points in Dallas on Monday against the Mavericks.
“I think it just fell off a cliff early, and once it was out of reach — not like our team usually does — we kinda gave in when we were down 20, 25 points,” Booker said.
Boston pranced up and down the red carpet Phoenix rolled out on the way to the stage it set for a statement win on ESPN. It took less than seven minutes into the second half for the Celtics to extend their lead to 45 on a 25-7 spurt. Williams had seen enough with 4:56 left in the third quarter and pulled all five starters at the same time.
It is the worst basketball I’ve seen Booker and the majority of his teammates play since Game 7 of the Dallas series. The players’ spirits, like that same night, represented those of a ghost. That is more important than any of the statistics I could roll through for an absolute rout.
The Suns’ juice, a staple of the program and a Monty Williams-led side, was gone. After a few looks didn’t go down in the first quarter that normally do, Phoenix let it get to them. It started forcing things, particularly Booker, who, again, rarely does that.
The defense, like the offense, wasn’t terrible by any means through the first quarter. It just wasn’t good enough, lacking urgency and high-end energy against the best team in the NBA.
“It just felt like they had way more purpose in their physicality than we did,” Williams said. “I thought that bothered us a bit. … That was not what we’ve been used to around here and not many times have I felt that way about a game where I jut felt like we physically didn’t handle the hands on bodies or whatever it was and then we just missed so many shots.”
The Celtics were absolutely ruthless, a familiar sight in Footprint Center, but not in those jerseys.
“It’s funny, they looked a lot like we did last year,” Paul said. “Coming off a Finals loss, they looked like a well-oiled machine.”
And that’s the part that was the most surprising about this. The Suns got clowned on national television in a marquee matchup vs. the top team in the East while they are the top team in the West. It happened after an awful loss, and a game following any type of defeat almost always inspires an extra couple of glasses of that aforementioned Suns juice.
“It was frustrating because we don’t lose two in a row and when it comes to good teams competing, we show up for those games,” Ayton said. “And tonight we didn’t.”
The timing is less than ideal. Phoenix travels to New Orleans to start a stretch of 10 of its next 14 games on the road across 30 days, a portion of the schedule that is also the most difficult from an opposition perspective.
The good news intertwined inside is that Paul is back after he missed 14 games due to right heel soreness. He was moving fine and looked like himself physically. The way this game crashed and burned for the Suns, though, obviously did not grant him the best opportunity to find his footing.
“He was a lot better than I thought (he would be),” Williams said of how Paul moved physically. “That’s a tough intro back into the league, to play against a team that’s just coming off a Finals run.”
It is spooky how much Wednesday felt like a regular season version of Game 7, and it came right after the Mavericks handed it to ’em on Monday in Dallas.
We spent the offseason wondering if Game 7 was the type of loss a team could get over. The Suns by media day were already tired of talking about it or even being asked questions that alluded to it, reiterating it was just one game.
The last 48 hours, Games 8 and 9 we’ll call ’em, were not reassuring after an encouraging first 23 games of the season through a few key injuries. If there’s anything to take away from the two games, and what I am going to choose to while simultaneously avoiding my own overreaction and not dismissing yours, is that this was a reminder.
A reminder that it’s on the Suns this next few months to defiantly shut down those notions through their play. And even when they do, the notions won’t dissipate until it extends into the postseason.
That’s what losing like that can do.
The Suns say they will only go forward and not look back.
“We gotta flush it,” Booker said. “That’s two in a row where we’ve gotten beat up pretty badly. You can’t blame scheme, you can’t blame rotation or anything on coach. This is something that we gotta look in the mirror as a team and we have to fix it. Can’t control making or missing shots but you can control your effort and that’s what we need to do.”
Booker joked it’s “two flushes” for these two games, a play on how teams typically “flush” poor performances like that to not give it much mind.
But the Suns need to do both, flush it while also doing exactly what Booker said about some self reflection.
“Take ours [expletive] whooping and keep moving,” Paul said.