Brad Stevens’ reliable options shrunk and rotations expanded deeper into this road trip. Starting three bigs turned into 30 Carsen Edwards minutes against the Clippers. Grant Williams emerged deep off the bench to close a game Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson started against the Warriors.
Stevens goes off feel as much as numbers. What he sees in practice and short stints during games matters. “Garbage time” is as valuable as other sequences, and he’s seen Edwards improve since he returned from COVID-19 to play in scrimmages with Tatum and Boston’s coaches at Auerbach Center to get back in shape after their three-week layoffs. Edwards played so well in them that the Celtics pulled him and made him a shoo-in for minutes in recent weeks.
Edwards scored 16 points on 5-of-8 shooting in Boston’s upset over the Clippers, so on Sunday he started for the first time in the NBA. It didn’t last long.
Devin Booker looked for the small guards on five straight possessions and the Suns scored on each. Phoenix started the night hitting 8-of-10 within the restricted area as a struggling C’s defense got peppered by the Suns’ perimeter players with jumpers and finishes inside. Mikal Bridges started 4-of-5, Booker hit 5-of-8 in the first half and dished five assists to teammates. He finished with 18 points and a critical shot with 43 seconds left that halted Boston’s comeback to within three points in the final minute. Phoenix won 100-91.
The Celtics shot 8-of-28 inside the arc against Deandre Ayton in the middle while Chris Paul draped Kemba Walker. Jayson Tatum, Jeff Teague and a pair of threes from Daniel Theis and Grant Williams kept Boston within 10.
Walker, Teague, Grant, Theis and Thompson built an awkward wall into the second quarter that worked best for Boston on both ends. Stevens kept searching, as did Tatum, finding Teague for a three that pulled the Celtics within 42-39 and Williams (who reached 50% from three at 21-of-42). Tatum drove through Frank Kaminsky to tie the game at 42, Teague tied the game once more at 49 with a three, then Booker drained a pull-up to push Phoenix ahead into half.
Monty Williams has implored Booker to keep shooting off the dribble. In his first season with Chris Paul, Williams noticed opponents sticking with Booker when he gets off the ball and even strong drives by teammates to the rim haven’t opened him for catch-and-shoot looks. Bradley Beal gets better looks off the ball, he said. Booker had no problem complying against Boston — a team he’s torched for 30.7 points per game in his career. He tortured Edwards and Walker earlier, drew doubles, then smoothly transitioned to facilitator.
Booker hit Kaminsky and Ayton away from the pressure he drew on the ball, reaching nine assists minutes into the third. He notched his double-double two minutes later on an assist to Bridges, then Paul hit back-to-back walking layups in transition as Boston’s offense stalled for over three minutes.
Stevens shifted again. This time Payton Pritchard stepped in for back-to-back threes and played alongside Teague as the Celtics worked back within 10 points. Walker has closed every game since his return, but amid struggles from the field (starting 2-of-15 on Sunday) that’s not a certainty going forward. He fell on his back during the first half trying to drive against Damion Jones and getting blocks — slapping his hands on the ground.
Pritchard and Teague hit jumpers again into the fourth. Theis hit a pair of baskets at the rim, but Ayton paced the Suns inside at the other end with a pair of finishes. Cameron Johnson finished through Theis to put Phoenix ahead 89-80 and Stevens shifted again. Back came Kemba — and eight points followed from his attacking in rapid succession.
Tatum and Pritchard added their own threes into the final seconds to race the Celtics within three under the one minute mark. Then Booker remembered Williams’ advice.
Pull-up. Splash from 20 feet.