PHOENIX – This season, the Al Shams have ridden through adversity, overcoming health hurdles and long absences. They’ve remained atop the Western Conference most of the way.
After missing 14 games with a right heel injury, Chris Paul returned Wednesday night. Asked before the game what he might expect from his veteran striker, coach Monty Williams said it was hard to say. The last time Paul played – November 7 – seemed like a long time ago.
Forward Cam Johnson, among the best shooters in the NBA, has been out since November 4, recovering from a torn meniscus in his right knee. His absence, along with some other minor health issues, has forced Williams to redo the rotation. But Phoenix survived.
Two nights after a blowout in Dallas, the Suns suffered the same fate in Wednesday night’s 125-98 loss to the Celtics at the Footprint Center. On its own, this might not be a huge deal. It happens in the NBA, especially for a team like Boston, the championship contender with the best record in the league.
But this continued a mini-slip for Phoenix that was reminiscent of last season’s stunning exit. Last season the Suns didn’t lose consecutive games by double digits until the Western Conference semi-finals. There, they lost Games 6 and 7 to the Mavericks by 27 and 33 points, respectively, to finish a promising season.
The past few days have had a similar feeling. Williams said he didn’t test it, but he understood who did. It started with a one-point loss at home last Friday to Houston, a game the Suns edged by 11 goals in the fourth quarter. Then, after a solid win over San Antonio, came Monday’s 130-111 clunker game in Dallas, a game in which the Suns trailed by 26 points at halftime.
Wednesday’s contest was even worse.
We’ve got to get rid of her,” said guard Devin Booker. “This is two in a row where we got hit really hard, and you can’t blame the scheme, you can’t blame the spin or anything on the coach. It’s just something we have to look at in the mirror as a team, and we have to fix.”
Williams often calls the Suns “painful losers” because they don’t often repeat bad shows. This attitude and approach has served them well. Going into Wednesday’s contest, the Suns are 35-10 since the 2020-21 season in games after losses. This is the best mark in the NBA on this stretch.
But not tonight.
This confrontation had a lot of intrigue. Preview potential NBA Finals. Match between Poker MVP candidates Jason Tatum from Boston. Paul’s return after a 14-game absence. ESPN audience. However, it was over in the first half. The Celtics led 69-42 at halftime.
“They took it to us,” Williams said. “It’s that simple. It just felt like they had more purpose in their physicality than we did. … It wasn’t what we were used to here.”
Part of it was shooting. The Suns missed 17 of their first 18 out of 3, putting themselves down an early double-digit hole. However, the core of this group has been together long enough to understand how to overcome such things; by skimming, defending, and taking out loose balls. The Sun showed none of that against the Celtics. They looked mentally disturbed.
“We just fell off a cliff early,” Booker said. “And once it got out of the way, not like our team usually does, we kind of gave up when we were 20-25 points down.”
When asked if it was more worrying that this happened in consecutive matches, Booker simply said: “Two heaps.”
Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined for 50 points for Boston, which was expected. Grant Williams scored 14 points, shooting 6-of-6 from the field. In a crucial game, the fourth-year forward took a pass at the right corner and looked for a teammate, not immediately realizing he was open. When no Phoenix player rushed to guard him, he simply put his feet up and dug out the three.
“They were the first to have the ball in the first half and into the third quarter,” said Monty Williams. “For me, I’m scratching my head because we usually come up with a few of those. Even on a rough night we got a few, but it doesn’t look like we can come up with anything tonight.”
With Boston (21-5) leading 95-52 with five minutes left in the third quarter, Monte Williams pulled his starter all night. The NBA Player of the Month for November, Booker had 17 points, making 6-of-17 from the field. Michal Bridges shot 2 of 12. Dendre Ayton, who had been very good for most of this season, was a non-factor.
“It was hard to keep an eye on him because that’s not who we are as a team,” said Suns defender Josh Okoji, who scored 28 points. “It happens. Eight matches. You can’t be perfect all 82, but it gives a chance to right some wrongs.”
The positive for Phoenix (16-9) was the return of Paul and forward Torrey Craig. Paul was in distribution mode; The Sun didn’t make enough shots to be important. He finished with four points, four rebounds and four assists (with four turnovers) in 24 minutes. Craig, who missed three games with a groin problem, scored 11 points in 23 minutes.
Williams said Paul did better than he expected. Booker thought the base was solid. This is a positive as Phoenix is coming off a four-game drive. The Suns play New Orleans, which vaulted them over the West, on Fridays and Sundays. Sometimes, a trip can help shake the team out of its funk. This is what Phoenix needs.
“We have time to regroup and think about it,” Booker said.
(Photo by Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)