Our new feature here on CelticsBlog takes a look at three things we’ll be watching for in that day’s game. Today, Boston plays the fourth game of their five-game west coast swing at the Phoenix Suns. With a win, the Celtics will clinch a winning record on the trip. Before you settle in to watch Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski try to win another Super Bowl (sadly, not as New England Patriots), watch the Boston battle Phoenix this afternoon.
1. Who wins the three-point shooting battle?
The Celtics aren’t overly dependent on the three-pointer as part of their offense. It may seem as if Boston is, but they are only 22nd in the NBA in three-point attempts. In actuality, the Celtics should probably should attempt more threes, as they are ninth in percentage.
The Suns are eighth in the league in attempts, but 21st in percentage, almost the opposite of the Celtics. But here’s where Phoenix really stands out: They are the best three-point defense in the NBA. They allow the second-fewest attempts and hold teams to the fourth-worst percentage, combining to allow the fewest made triples per game.
It will be interesting to see how Boston chooses to attack Phoenix. Look for the Celtics to live in mid-range. While that shot is persona non grata around the NBA these days, Boston feasts there behind the pullup jumpers of Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum.
2. Can either team speed the other up?
Phoenix plays at a snail’s pace, and the Celtics aren’t much better. Both are at fewer than 100 possessions per game. With Chris Paul controlling the action for the Suns, they aren’t going to run much. They prefer to grind it out. A lot of their actions will start with Devin Booker sets. If nothing comes of it, they revert to Paul running pick-and-roll with Deandre Ayton.
It could behoove Boston to try and get out and run more. The Celtics generally look pretty good when they move the ball up the floor quickly. Without Jaylen Brown, it would help Boston create some easier offense and take the burden off Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker.
3. How do the Celtics score and defend Devin Booker?
The Suns may seem like an offensive team with the talents of Devin Booker (as Boston fans well know!), Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton, but they win games with their defense. Phoenix is fifth in the NBA in defensive rating, led by their excellent three-point defense. They also rarely foul, limiting easy points for opponents that way.
Phoenix has a group of solid to good wing defenders in Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Cameron Johnson. If Crowder is able to go, expect all three to spend time guarding Jayson Tatum. Look for the Celtics to try to free Tatum by running more on-ball screen actions. That will also involve Ayton as a defender more. He’s improved, but Ayton still can be a liability as a point-of-attack defender.
In the backcourt, Paul remains an outstanding defender. Much like with Tatum, expect Walker to do a lot of damage as a pick-and-roll ballhandler. Again, this involves Ayton and when he’s out of the game, the Suns backup bigs leave a lot to be desired as defenders.
As for defending Booker…who knows? The Celtics two best options (Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart) are out. Does Brad Stevens start someone like Semi Ojeleye? Probably not the best defensive option for Booker, as Ojeleye’s more of a rugged defender. Tatum can check Booker, but they won’t ask him to do that all game. Not with the offensive load Tatum has to carry. This is probably a game for Javonte Green to get some serious run. He’s likely the best option to defend Booker today. Payton Pritchard and Carsen Edwards could get some turns, as they can provide some pressure on the ball as well.
Except a low-scoring, slow-paced, grind of a game. It may not be the prettiest of basketball. A lot will come down to which duo can score more: Tatum and Walker or Booker and Paul. If Boston gets the performance from their reserves that they got against the Clippers, a winning road trip is in sight.