Mercifully, the west coast road trip has come to an end.
On Friday night, stop number five on the Pacific tour was in Phoenix against one of the NBA’s premier teams: the 20-4 Phoenix Suns. Without their two best young players in Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton, this was a chance for the Celts to close out the road trip with a 2-3 record.
Instead, cold shooting (4-26 from 3) and an inability to create for each other (13 assists on 35 baskets) made the Celtics offense appear stuck in the mud, not the first time it has with Jaylen Brown out of the lineup. Also missing for Boston: connector piece Josh Richardson, a solid complementary piece, was placed in health and safety protocols hours before tip.
Jayson Tatum was great in the first quarter, scoring 12 points on 5-9 shooting. He got to the rim, was patient waiting to attack and there was enough movement around him to clear the pathway there. The rest of the game, Tatum had 13 points on 5-16 shooting.
The Celtics were right there, down 32-30 a couple of minutes into the second quarter, when a major defensive miscue got head coach Ime Udoka disgusted enough to call an immediate timeout. The defensive lapse, which frankly could be aimed at as many as four players on the floor, was pretty inexcusable.
Grant Williams and Romeo Langford drew most of the ire for being in zero position to help defensively. Udoka, rarely animated on the court, lit his guys up during the timeout to see how they’d respond.
[Narrator]: They wouldn’t.
Instead, the defensive error served as the spark to a precipitous downfall for the rest of the quarter. After the Landry Shamet layup, the Suns went on a 23-9 run to close the half, breaking the game wide open.
Udoka put his guys in positions to succeed, starting with a beautifully drawn-up Hammer action for Aaron Nesmith out of the timeout that resulted in a miss:
For the next several minutes, quick shots, 3-pointers that were self-created or a your turn, my turn approach to offense between Marcus Smart, Dennis Schroder and Tatum torpedoed Boston’s opportunity to stay with Phoenix. Their lack of offensive execution turned into defensive malaise, as it’s prone to do with this group.
On some level, the personal makeup of this group is why hero ball is the default whenever an opponent makes a run. Tatum is one of the world’s best scorers and, perhaps rightfully so, sees a lack of scoring prowess around him and tries to bear the entire burden of the offense. Smart is one of the most self-confident players in the NBA, to the point where he can keep launching despite going 1-13. Schroder has never met a shot he doesn’t like.
The stats are the stats, with only 13 assists on 35 baskets. That said, assist numbers only count if kickout jumpers go in. Where the Celtics consistently fall short, whether it’s due to their 5-out scheme or a lack of willing passers in attack mode, is in generating looks for teammates at the rim.
On Friday, the impact of such a creator for their opponent slapped the team in the face. Chris Paul, one of the greatest passers of all time, was able to manipulate Boston’s defense to help his role players get easy looks at the rim, particularly his bigs. CP3 diced up the Celtics with 12 assists, many of which were for JaVale McGee or Jalen Smith, the center duo for the evening.
McGee (21 points, 15 rebounds) was the embodiment of exactly what Udoka is looking for in his players: opportunistic energy. McGee was a fiend on the offensive glass early, sprinted the floor and rolled hard and played inspired defense. Even Jalen Smith (7 points, 9 rebounds in 22 minutes) was able to play solid minutes for the Suns.
Paul was the maestro who orchestrated the attack and simply carved up Boston’s switching defense with accurate passer to roll men for dunks:
For reference, it wasn’t until there were six minutes left in the game and the Celtics were down 25 when Robert Williams was able to get a rim attempt out of the screen-and-roll. Williams, one of the better lob finishers in the game and roll threats, is consistently underutilized here by his teammates. Saturday was a great reminder of the value that comes with generating easy looks at the rim, a reason Paul is a future first ballot Hall-of-Famer.
This one felt lost at halftime. A sturdy 30-27 effort in the third-quarter was better, but a 15-point deficit still existed heading into the final frame. That disastrous second quarter sunk their efforts in an insurmountable way.
For years, Celtics fans were clamoring for Brad Stevens to call out his team more through the media and offer blunt, direct critiques of areas his team fell short. Now, Ime Udoka is not pulling many punches. After a 1-4 road trip closed on Friday night, he mentioned the poor efforts in Phoenix.
That pride, which Udoka is referencing, is a non-negotiable for coaches. No matter who is in or out of the lineup, representing the team requires a desire to always put full effort and selflessness on display. In games like this, with a star and key rotation player out, coaches expect to see more inspired play from the guys who don’t get regular minutes. Games like these are the rare opportunities for them to prove they belong in the regular rotation whenever Jaylen and JRich return. As a player, you have to approach their absences as the only change you get to capitalize.
That’s the major difference between where the Suns and Celtics were without their starters. Sure, Chris Paul’s ability to elevate the rest of the Suns helped them get easy buckets. But Boston’s fringe guys weren’t very effective, nor inspired.
Udoka was very clear on that post-game: changes may be on the horizon.
The Celtics have a few days off as they travel back to Boston. There’s the possibility that Richardson will miss more than a week, and hopefully Jaylen is returning soon. That said, the Celtics have a lot to fix: ball movement on offense (particularly how to create for each other), better effort from the bench and learning who is going to be dependable in those second units.