BOSTON – Following a dominant performance against the Brooklyn Nets in their previous game, the Boston Celtics fell flat on Friday night, falling to the Phoenix Suns 104-96. After a dominant offensive performance against Brooklyn, they sputtered to a halt. It’s those sorts of inconsistencies that have plagued Boston at times this year and last, leaving much to be desired on the offensive end. Rather than putting their maximum effort into each possession, the Celtics were stagnant all night.
“I think they came down and outplayed us from start to finish for the most part,” Jaylen Brown said post-game. “We got off to a decent start, but they outplayed us. No energy, they got more shots than we did, we were walking the ball up the floor every possession. We just didn’t have an enthusiasm tonight, just kind of going through the motions as a unit.”
In the NBA, simply “going through the motions” is a surefire way to pick up a loss, and the Celtics have dealt with that issue throughout the year. A similar problem occurred the last time they matched up against the Suns, only in that instance, Boston blew out Phoenix and went on to drop two straight games to the Golden State Warriors and LA Clippers.
Each of those losses came in ugly fashion, with Boston’s offense struggling to consistently generate clean looks. That’s exactly what happened against the Suns. Boston recorded just 94 points - their third-lowest total in a game this season.
Inconsistencies on one end of the floor frequently lead to more inconsistencies on the other end, and that endless spiral is where the Celtics often find themselves trapped.
“I’m not really disappointed. I think we can’t be inconsistent with how we execute,” head coach Joe Mazzulla explained. “The fragility of hanging onto playing a quote unquote perfect game is very difficult. And so, Phoenix did a great job of managing the game with their offense and their ability to execute. And we had spurts throughout the game where we gave up runs where we didn’t manage it well, whether it was because of our offense or it was because of our second-shot defense.”
Against the Nets, the Celtics shot 57.6% from the field and 48.1% from deep. Just two days later against Phoenix, those numbers dropped to 38.7% overall and 26.3% from distance. They went from putting up percentages that ranked in their top-five games this season to dropping splits that both ranked in the bottom.
Boston flipped a switch in the worst way possible in the span of two days. That sort of drastic change in performance is what has made this squad so volatile at times - being able to go from the best offensive team in the league to one of the worst.
“Every game has its own story,” said Brown. “And other times, we’ve depended on guys to come off the bench to lift us up and stuff like that. Some days it’s Malcolm, some days it’s Payton, Grant, [or] whomever. We didn’t get enough tonight. We just got to be better going forward. We got to find ways. As a leader, I gotta find ways to help get my team going. Sparks a little bit. The spark wasn’t there, and Phoenix seemed like they wanted it more than us, and that came out more, and we just came out and was going through the motions. And when that happens, everything becomes more pressure. We should be playing, flying around. But we took our foot off the gas.”
Maintaining constant confidence and pace will be key to the Celtics’ eventual success this season. Time and time again, Mazzulla has stressed the importance of not getting bored with playing the right way. That translates not only on an in-game basis but at a game-to-game level as well.
At their best, the Celtics can go toe-to-toe with anyone, and they might be the favorites to win the title. When they get bored and start drifting into stagnation, things go south very quickly.
Phoenix was without Devin Booker and Cam Johnson against Boston, which may have lured Boston into a trap game. But it all goes back to the point of consistency - if the Celtics aren’t able to bring the same intensity against a short-handed Suns team as they are against an inter-conference foe like the Nets, then where does that leave them?
“Just mindset and mentality, you know? You got to be able to get up for games and match other teams’ energy,” Brown stated. “And tonight, that just didn’t happen. We played well in stretches. We played way too slow. They shot way more shots than us. They dictated the game. I think we could’ve run a lot more, played a little bit faster, got some more shots. It didn’t happen tonight.”