BOSTON -- Trailing 98-88 in the fourth quarter, Boston’s Jayson Tatum had the ball in hand, with a potential 1-on-1 opportunity to score at the rim.
Before he got there, he had one last inside-out, dribble-drive move to make. He made it, but the ball took an unexpected hop, hit his shin and rolled out of bounds.
It was that kind of night for the Boston Celtics whose struggles continue with Saturday’s 123-119 loss, their sixth in the last nine games.
There are many avenues to take that’ll lead you to why the Celtics (27-14) lost this one, for sure. But this loss, like most of the others, comes down to defense; specifically, the Celtics not playing very well at that end of the floor.
And it isn’t just the perimeter players or the team’s bigs. It’s the entire squad, delivering about as much force as a feather all the while getting picked apart from the opening tip to the final horn.
As we’ve seen so many times with the Celtics, they made a frantic rally in the closing minutes as Phoenix’s comfortable double-digit lead was down to just seven points (114-107) with 1:16 to play.
A pair of free throws and a dunk by Daniel Theis brought Boston within 114-111, only for a short fadeaway jumper in the lane from Mikal Bridges hung on the lip of the rim before falling. That increased the Suns' lead to 116-111 with 36.9 seconds to play.
Coming out of a Celtics timeout, they called a lob pass to Gordon Hayward, who caught it cleanly and took an uncontested lay-up that rimmed out. A chorus of boos rang out immediately.
It was a fitting last-second play for the Celtics. Once again, they did a lot of things that looked good and should have worked. But ultimately, they came up short yet again.
‘D’ IN DEVIN BOOKER STANDS FOR DOMINATE
Booker puts up a ton of points, but the Celtics continue to be the one team he loves to torch more than others. And what we saw for most of Saturday night was consistent with what we usually see from Booker when he’s playing against Boston.
Saturday was another big night for Booker in Boston. He led the Suns with a near triple-double of 39 points,10 rebounds and nine assists.
Boston used a slew of different defenders at him but it didn’t matter. Booker is that good and the Celtics defense lately … isn’t.
WALKER’S ABSENCE PAINFULLY OBVIOUS
Marcus Smart did his best Kemba Walker impression, making a slew of 3’s — and mostly doing so in a very efficient manner
But in the end, as the Celtics failed to make the necessary plays at either end of the floor, Walker’s absence was painfully obvious.
As impressive as Boston’s knack for players stepping up to fill the void might be when missing one of their stars, there's a cumulative effect that, over time, will make going that route a losing proposition.
The Celtics need their core guys healthy, ready to go. And when you look at their schedule, a taxing January schedule, and the fact that they have been able to survive way more than they should with this “next man up” brand of basketball, it shouldn’t come as too big a shock that they are coming up short when one of their best players (like Walker) isn’t available.
MARCUS SMART DOING SMART-LIKE THINGS ALL GAME
It was very much a bittersweet time for Marcus Smart. He was giving the Celtics what the franchise and the fans have been clamoring for — a consistent 3-point shot.
Smart was having the best game of his life shooting the ball against the Suns. He finished with a career-high 37 points scored, including a career-high 11 made 3’s. He also had eight assists and five rebounds.
There are going to be very few nights when Smart plays this well, this locked in offensively.
Even after many fans had headed to the exit, there was Smart, engaged, encouraging as ever, trying to will this team to a victory that they had no business getting. It was the kind of leadership and big-game play that we’ve come to expect from him.
And as impressive as it was, the end result was a Celtics loss. This one can be blamed on many factors and many players … but Smart ain’t one of them.
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