The Celtics set the Suns

By Stephen Alford
Updated: January 20, 2009

BOSTON — I thought the Phoenix Suns would be one of those “barometer” games for the Boston Celtics: One of those games that would test the Celtics mettle; One of those games that would show if the Celtics were truly back to playing the way they did earlier this season.

We are all aware of how well the Cs got out of the gate at the start of the season. Their 27-2 record was the best start in League history by a team with two losses. Their 19 consecutive wins tied the 1999-00 Lakers for the fourth longest in NBA history.

And, speaking of the Lakers… …

All that fanfare came to an end on Christmas day when Kobe Bryant torched the Cs for 27 points, and the Green’s 19-game win streak also came to an end with a 92-83 loss to the Lakers.

Celtic Nation and Celtics coach Doc Rivers didn’t think the basketball gods showed any respect for the Celts, sending the reigning NBA champions on the road on Christmas to play against the very same team they defeated in the Finals.

Note to the League: any reigning champion should have the right to play on their home court during the holidays.

The Cs then played their very next game the very next night. That’s when the unimaginable happened: The Celtics lost two consecutive games, this time at the hands of the cellar-dwelling Golden State Warriors (99-89).

Next thing we know Boston went 1-4 on the road; then four consecutive losses, including 100-88 embarrassment at New York, a 114-106 overtime loss to Charlotte at the hands of Raymond Felton’s 25 points (much to the delight of minority-owner Michael Jordan), a heartbreaking 89-85 loss to Houston behind Yao Ming’s 26 points, and a 98-83 laugher against Eastern Conference rival Cleveland Cavaliers and King James’ 38 points.

Riding a four-game losing streak and losing seven of the last nine game, the Celtics needed to play another bottom-feeder like Toronto to right the ship. But Toronto brought their A-game and played the Celts close in the home-and-home as the Cs barely got past the Raptors in Toronto, winning 94-88, and then winning in overtime as their captain poured in 39 points and lifted the Green to a 115-109 victory.

After a home-and-home against the New Jersey Nets, the Celtics were quickly in possession of a four-game winning streak when they hosted Phoenix on Monday.

Granted the Cs took care of the Nets the way they should have, but they barely got by a struggling Toronto team. Celtics Nation could not help but think the Suns would be a good test for the Celtics to see if they regained the swagger they had during the span from November 15-December 23.

After all, the Suns arguably boast the best starting five in the League with Grant Hill, newly acquired gun Jason Richardson, rejuvenated Shaquille O’Neal, stat stuffer Amar’e Stoudemire, and Steve Nash to set it all up.

“We never really lost it (their swagger),” said Ray Allen after the Phoenix game. “I think swagger is represented for us in ways of getting wins and we still were working tirelessly trying to figure out what we need to do to be good…We have been passing the ball better, taking better care of the ball, and defensively just back to our principles.”

“I never really thought we lost our confidence,” said Cs captain Paul Pierce. “It was just a matter of going back and doing the things we do well. It’s just remembering who we are as a team.”

Even though Shaq and the Suns had just defeated the Raptors at Toronto the previous night, everybody still expected the Suns to come out blazing against the Celtics. And everybody expected Shaq to play despite being on the court the previous night.

Shaq showed up but the rest of the Suns did not as the Cs defeated Phoenix 104-87.

Paul Pierce started the game connecting on three of his first four attempts and finished the game with 12 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in 32 minutes. Allen went 4-for-5 in the first quarter, including two-for-two from downtown, and finished the game with 20 points.

Kevin Garnett set the tone early with his defense when he blocked a Shaq attempt from behind, which led to Rajon Rondo (23 points, seven assists) performing his patented fake-the-behind-the-back-pass on Steve Nash and Grant Hill before scoring a layup on Nash.

Rondo then followed that play up with an ally-oop to KG, who finished the game with 16 points, eight rebounds, three steals and a block. Before you knew it, Boston was jumped out to a 23-9 advantage, and it didn’t take long to realize the Suns did not come to Boston to play the game of basketball. This one was over when the referee threw the ball up on the opening tip.

Jason Richardson only attempted two shots from the field and was held to a doughnut in the first half.

Amar’e Stoudemire, aka Stat, not only also attempted only two shots from the field in the first half, but he finished the game no-for-seven from the field, scoring only three points on free throws. Even worse, Stoudemire was only able to grab one rebound in his 30 minutes of non-action.

Nash had a decent stat line with 12 points on 5-for-7 from the field (2-for-2 from the deep end) and eight assists, but he let Rondo dance on him the entire first half.

The only Sun who rose to the occasion was the old man of the group, 16-year vet Shaquille O’Neal. O’Neal scored 10 points and had four rebounds and a blocked shot at the close of the half and finished the game with 16 points and 11 rebounds, but it was obvious from the beginning that the other players were not inspired as the Suns went into halftime facing a 30-point deficit (64-34).

“It was a good old fashion ass whoopin’ and there is nothing more to say. Period. That’s it. Good old fashion ass whoopin’,” is how Shaq Diesel described it. “You always gotta come to compete. We’ve got a long way to go and there is no excuse for this.”

“We got a good old spanking tonight,” said Suns coach Terry Porter. “They really came out and turned the intensity on us early and we didn’t respond. We just didn’t.

“We felt like we have been playing better and this is a great test for us,”said Pierce. “Not taking away anything from New Jersey and Toronto, they’re not as good as Phoenix. So this is more of a test for us to maintain our consistency, especially with a big road trip coming up in Orland and Miami.”

The test against the Suns proved to be easier than anyone expected. And despite the efforts of Dwayne Wade, I doubt Miami will give the Celtics problems when the Cs face the Heat on Wednesday night. If they struggle in Miami, it will be obvious the Cs will need more work. If they win then they will do what they should have done.

The real barometer will come on Thursday against Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic.