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The Celtics’ no good, very bad quarter

The Celtics lost to the Phoenix Suns in disappointing fashion and the reasons why were evident in their awful third quarter performance.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s an inherently disappointing sentence: the Boston Celtics lost to the Phoenix Suns.

In a season that has been marked by inconsistency, Wednesday night’s loss stands out as a bit of a low point. The Suns are the very worst team in the Western Conference, but apart from a 37-point Celtics first quarter, they were the better team on the court for the night. Things reached their lowest point in an ugly third quarter that saw the Celtics outscored 27-18. What went wrong?

1. Rebounding

First and foremost, it’s impossible to ignore one simple stat: the Celtics allowed 21 offensive rebounds in this game. The Suns enjoyed a sizable advantage in the paint, anchored by the top overall pick in this past summer’s draft, DeAndre Ayton.

This was no doubt partially a product of Boston’s many injuries — Al Horford missed his 6th consecutive game, and Aron Baynes was lost just two minutes into the game with a broken hand. The Celtics’ two remaining centers, Daniel Theis and Robert Williams, severely struggled to contain Ayton, Richaun Holmes and the Suns down low.

While this certainly veers into the realm of unpopular opinion, it has to be said: Williams did not necessarily have a great game Wednesday night. Yes, he blocked five shots, but for long stretches during his (admittedly unanticipated) 24 minute stint, it felt as though he was hunting for those blocks rather than focusing on defensive rebounding or box-outs, leaving him out of position frequently. Williams grabbed just three defensive boards in the contest — an amount that would not normally seem significant for a player who grabbed five boards on the other end and blocked five shots, but one that stands out just a little bit more when the opponent enjoyed so much success on the offensive glass.

The latest word on Baynes is that he’ll be out “indefinitely,” and his absence costs the Celtics their most effective rebounding presence. Horford’s return will help, but the Celtics are going to have to take some semblance of command over the offensive boards in his absence, otherwise even seemingly trivial match-ups like this one will start to feel like substantially more uphill battles.

2. Turnovers

Put simply, this was a game where the Celtics made a lot of frustrating mistakes. Any game where a team turns the ball over 16 times tend to make that impression. Early on, it felt like Boston was getting away with a whole lot of exceptionally hazardous passes and, as the game went on, they naturally stopped getting away with quite so many overall.

Even as the Celtics were still getting away with these mistakes, it was apparent that something wasn’t quite right. In this particularly disastrous third quarter, the Celtics would turn the ball over five times — two of those turnovers belonging to Kyrie Irving.

It was one of those games where every bounce seemed to go a little awry for the Celtics. Players fumbled the ball off the dribble, in the pick-and-roll, or while posting up.

Even the team’s best (only?) lob passer, Marcus Smart, misfired badly on an attempted connection with Theis at the rim.

This, at least, is an area the Celtics haven’t necessarily struggled in to this point. On the year, the team has posted the fifth-fewest turnovers of any team in the NBA. Still: these are the kinds of careless mistakes that make an upset to a lowly team like the Suns possible to begin with, and they thoroughly muted the fact that the Celtics forced 16 turnovers of their own on the night.

3. Perimeter Shooting

Completing the trifecta of bad basketball, the Celtics compounded their problems by not being able to hit a shot. As a team, they shot just 5-of-20 from the field in the quarter, including 2-of-7 from Kyrie and 1-of-5 from Jayson Tatum. Early on, it looked like one of those eerily familiar stretches where the Celtics generate good looks and just don’t make the shots.

As things went on, the quality of the Celtics’ shots declined however. More and more, the Celtics’ misses started to be the result of poor decision-making. For instance, Tatum has no business attempting a shot like this; earlier in the season, this would have been grounds for an immediate benching from Brad Stevens.

Others still were caused by an underrated defensive effort on the part of the Suns, who dramatically outplayed their reputation on that end of the floor.

In particular, Jaylen Brown’s struggles would come to a head in the third quarter. After a mini-renaissance in his first three games after a back injury, Brown has managed just 12 points total across his last three (broken up by a wrist injury and a brief battle with illness). Against the Suns, he looked especially lost; he shot just 3-of-9 from the field, missing all three of his three-point attempts. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a quarter where so many Celtics’ jumpers failed to even hit the rim, and for Brown’s part, neither of his attempts managed to do so.

This was a narrow loss, and an arguably forgivable one when you factor in Baynes’ early injury and the Suns current hot streak. Still, the Celtics’ effort can only be described as disappointing, and they’re lucky things didn’t get uglier. Phoenix scored just 20 second-chance points off those 21 offensive rebounds, largely struggling to convert easy looks at the rim, and they matched Boston’s 16 turnovers with 17 of their own. A little better execution on the part of the Suns, and their margin of victory is closer to 20 points than just eight.

That third quarter highlighted some trouble spots for the Celtics that will need to improve going forward. Turnovers likely won’t continue to be an issue moving forward, but the Celtics’ rebounding and scoring struggles in this game are reason for some concern. Losing Baynes is a sizable setback, and until Horford is able to return, it’s going to have to be up to Williams and Theis to even the playing field on the glass — especially with Giannis Antetokounmpo in Boston tonight and the arrival of Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers looming on Christmas Day. Meanwhile, it’s hard to speculate on what exactly has gone wrong with Brown — a recent wrist injury likely isn’t helping — but he’s been a substantial negative

The Celtics schedule is about to get difficult again, as their next ten games all come against teams with some level of playoff aspirations. Adjustments will need to be made to carry on the momentum of their recent eight-game winning streak, and Wednesday’s third quarter against the Suns provides plenty of points of emphasis.

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