Off their loss to the Chicago Bulls to begin the Las Vegas stop on their Summer League tour, the Celtics turned towards a lineup vs. Phoenix that featured Demetrius Jackson at the point without Terry Rozier; who continues to stand out among the cast just over a year into his NBA career. James Young also sat out the game for rest after shooting 1-7 yesterday.
Offensively the team rode waves throughout, finishing strong while consistently having to run and jump with a ridiculously athletic youth core that was out in full force for Phoenix who took the game 87-74.
The Chicago loss displayed a sloppy offensive flow, with the team shooting 32% in the nine point loss. With that Boston seemed to take it back to the basics by attacking the rim often. Early on with different players from R.J. Hunter (17 points 4-11 field goals, 4-6 3-pt) to Jaylen Brown (5 pts, 4 rebounds, 0-6 FG) to Jackson (4 pts, 2-8 FG) on the ball, the looks were still inconsistent on the scoring side. Hunter flung a ball out of bounds on a give-and-go and was stuffed at the rim while Brown still couldn't find a bucket in the early minutes despite a few trips to the line that he's shown a tendency to find.
On the defensive end the C's were put to the test by the Suns' young athleticism. Brown timed and stuffed a Marquese Chriss (15 pts, 14 reb, 2 blocks, 6-15 FG) shot but got caught overplaying an Alan Williams (15 pts, 12 reb, 6-10 FG) breakaway and fouled him looking for the block from behind. Williams scored seven midway through the first quarter and standout All-Rookie First Team guard Devin Booker (24 pts, 7 assists, 7-17 FG), who will soon join the United States select team, held the offense together with three big buckets.
Kyle Kuric (7 pts, 3-4 FG) also made an appearance in the first for Phoenix, a former Louisville who faced a terrifying brain tumor.
After one, Phoenix ran out to a 24-16 lead behind a flurry of fast-paced offense that set up flashy plays like a Chriss throwdown slam.
Dragan Bender (3 pts, 5 turnovers, 1-6 FG) struggled midway through the first half, losing control of the ball and giving it to the Celtics on the run three times to pair with three fouls. Jackson stripped him to begin the second and laid the ball in on the other end to spark a string of points for Boston into the second quarter. He would get banged up on a collision underneath the basket with Bender and exited the game with a slight limp before returning later.
Stepping up for the Celtics off the bench, late second-round pick Abdel Nader (13 pts, 6 reb, 6-13 FG) scored some excellent points coming off the dribble to the basket. Elsewhere Corey Walden (0-4 FG), Malcolm Miller (7 pts, 2-4 FG), and Marcus Thornton (0-4 FG) drew a fair share of minutes before Brown returned late in the second with Boston down three.
The starters changed the Celtics' fortunes on both ends at that point. Guerschon Yabusele (7 pts, 4 reb, 3-4 FG) started with a nifty turn at the top of the key to find the basket for two before Hunter scored a quick five points put them back up. From there the back-and-forth began between Hunter, Yabusele and Phoenix's rookie Tyler Ulis (10 pts, 4 reb, 5 ast, 6 steals, 4-11 FG) who scored eight straight points late in the second. He went for 11 on the final possession but Brown stepped up to stop him at the rim, leaving the game at 44-40 Suns at the half.
Phoenix paced the start of the the third as Chriss kept the Suns' offense moving with excellent footwork underneath the rim. He set the team up with a layup in the opening minute before he was fouled on a massive transition block by Jordan Mickey (18 pts, 6 reb, 7-13 FG), he couldn't convert the free throws but got his revenge with a big slam over the top of him later.
Then there was Booker, playing with the swagger of an established NBA performer much like Rozier had been for Boston in previous games. He brought it once again in the early stage of the second quarter with a five point swing and a feisty wrap-up with Hunter. The back-and-forth didn't end there, Hunter caught a hard foul from Williams and then redeemed himself with a block on Booker off the dribble. Through that all, Phoenix stayed persistent leading 55-46 midway through the third. Over the last five minutes they would hold the Celtics to a pair of Nader buckets and extend their lead to 65-50.
Including two blocks from Chriss, the Celtics missed 11 of their last 13 shots in the frame.
For the Celtics in the fourth an emphasis was placed on getting Mickey even more looks inside after a rough third and he took advantage combining for jump shots, toss-ins around the hoop, and a pair of free throws to jump into the scoring lead. Up double digits Phoenix finally got their first bucket from Bender outside the arc while Brown continued to struggle at the rim for Boston. Despite his absence the Celtics stuck around on the scoring punch of Nader, Hunter and Mickey pulling within nine.
At the final buzzer the Celtics would take another loss 87-74, their second straight after a 3-0 start but the physicality and aggression of the game finally settled into some solid baskets for them in the fourth. Nader flourished creating for himself on the ball, Mickey finally turned looks into points around the rim, Brown continued to fly around despite his inability to put shots through, and Hunter's scrappiness led the C's through some of their best moments. Yabusele didn't play often but when he did his versatility shined through as well. As for Ben Bentil (1-4 FG), Jackson, and the sitting Young questions remain.