What's the best way to get fired up for a road game across the country against one of the worst teams in the NBA? How about your teammate getting out of the hospital Friday morning after two days of sickness, grabbing a flight alone to meet you Saturday, and him being ready for the game that night.
That's this Celtics team; always hyper-focused, determined, and unwilling to back down. Most players would've taken the night off after the week Avery Bradley had, contracting what sounded like the flu on Wednesday, but he probably didn't even consider it. There was 10 games to go and Boston was still in a deadlocked race for the three seed.
Boston would need Bradley too, as a Suns team without Tyson Chandler and Jon Leuer was prepared to go small and spread the floor across the desert. Thanks to long stretches of offensive struggles through the third quarter, the Celtics escaped the game by the grit of their teeth in the final seconds. But their focus remained, getting stops on three of the final four possessions and hitting 24 of 27 free throws to hold on to a 102-99 win.
A.B. (5-16, 15 points) got it started with a quick floater before Phoenix came back with a John Jenkins (3-3, 9 pts) three. After a few misses from the C's some early frustration set in after an Alex Len (5-8, 10 pts, 8 rebounds) and-one. Isaiah Thomas (8-20, 28 pts, 4 reb, 3 assists) wasn't happy about a no-call on an earlier drive and his technical foul gave the Suns a four point play.
As always, I.T. made up for it blowing by Brandon Knight (5-16, 2-12 3-pt, 19 pts) following another Jenkins jumper and through Len for a three-point play. After a pair of Bradley free throws the C's were back out to a 9-8 lead and it was A.B. setting the tone throughout the first applying his crafty perimeter defense to rookie stud Devin Booker (8-20, 21 pts, 4 reb, 4 ast) and scoring six in the first six minutes.
Elsewhere Evan Turner (6-14, 17 pts, 11 reb) was creating from the three as the team moved to 4-1 since he entered the starting lineup as an alternative solution to Jae Crowder's absence. He pushed to pace off stops and got an early break to Amir Johnson (6 reb) to push the C's ahead further. Plays later he came off a rebound and took it coast to coast to make it 21-15.
From there on in the first Phoenix went into full run-and-gun mode. Mirza Teletovic (7-17, 17 pts, 9 reb) threatened for a short period but they'd go bucketless for over three minutes after a made three from him. After they broke the streak with a pair of buckets off rebounds at the rim, Kelly Olynyk (7-10, 16 pts) emerged and hit a pair of threes. Isaiah flew across the court in five seconds and Boston was in full control up 35-22.
The game would quickly become a story of taking care of business and withholding Suns runs, which could come at any moment with their shooting. After Marcus Smart (8 reb, 4 ast) set up an early bucket in the 2nd, one of those came with the Suns hitting five of six shots and pulling within 10.
Archie Goodwin (8 pts) and Len led the way through that hard run but once again the Celtics re-established themselves; going on a 13-2 run, watching Booker go to the bench with his third foul, and forcing four straight Phoenix turnovers as they held them without a bucket for almost five straight minutes. From there Boston stood with a 19 point lead, taking care of business.
Thanks to a high intensity quarter of focus led by the activity of Bradley, Turner leading all scorers, and Smart they went into the half up 58-41.
Booker returned for the third quarter starting with a quick three. Once again Boston was able to regroup and held the Suns scoreless for the next two minutes. Thomas and Turner picked up four points apiece before another wave of Phoenix heat offensively hit the C's. Knight came off the bench exploding, hitting three straight shots and draining two free throws to make it 68-60. Johnson was the run-stopper, putting the Celts back up ten after two scoreless minutes and then blocking Len inside.
Following the 17-2 run the Celts' massive hold on the game was gone and they quickly turned back to Isaiah to save them. A pair of free throws from I.T. spaced their lead back up to five but suddenly there was a game to play again behind Knight's rise.
Boston's lead dwindled down to one after another bucket from Booker, before Thomas saved the day once again with a ridiculously difficult baseline jumper and a straightaway three plays later. He would score the C's last seven points in the quarter but Phoenix wouldn't go away, Booker hit a buzzer beater at the rim for his ninth of frame and Suns were still with 81-75.
As the fourth roared in, it became clear that Booker and Knight weren't going anywhere and the Celts were going to need someone other than Thomas to hold them off. The hero rose to the occasion quickly: Marcus Smart. After a pair of Olynyk makes inside, Phoenix came back with a four point swing to pull closer. Then out of nowhere Smart hauled in a absurd offensive board and got it to Jonas Jerebko (3-5, 9 pts, 7 reb) for an important three. Next play the former hit his second bucket in seven attempts before the latter followed up Booker free throws with another three.
Knight three, Booker lay-up. After all that the Celtics still only led by five. Following a timeout the Suns waved a giant flag at half-court, sadly it was not white. The C's were going to have to take this game.
Booker more than anyone was going to make it extremely difficult, hitting four shots in a row and scoring eight between the five and one minute mark. With under a minute to go the Suns had pulled within one once again on a killer jumper.
As Bradley missed a jumper at the bucket, Booker looked poised to give the Suns a lead in isolation but missed as Turner hauled in a ruthless rebound. The C's would fail to score again on the next possession but Knight pulled up on a three and watched it fly past the rim out of bounds. With 21 seconds to go, Smart drilled both of his free throws.
But Booker wasn't done. Coming off the timeout he drove to the lane and unleashed a floater, missed and grabbed his own rebound, then put it back to bring the deficit back to one. After a pair of Isaiah free throws he came back for more, and Turner was there for the block to seal the deal.
The C's had escaped by the grit of their teeth for their 43rd win. 102-99 over Phoenix wasn't how they drew it up, but in the end it was the right way to start the toughest road trip of the season. They're on to Los Angeles in the morning to take on the Clippers Sunday, a 10:30 p.m. tip.