The Phoenix Suns scored on 11 of their final 12 possessions last night at TD Banknorth Garden. And that made all the difference.
Shrugging off fatigue and showing why it is a veteran team with title aspirations, Phoenix did what it needed down the stretch and earned a 116-111 victory over the Celtics less than 24 hours after an epic double-overtime win at New Jersey.
As Steve Nash and Co. worked to put away a close game, the Suns seemed to score easily, whether it was a 22-footer by Boris Diaw, an alley-oop dunk by Shawn Marion on the break, a 3-pointer by Leandro Barbosa, or a driving dunk by foul-plagued Amare Stoudemire. Some were tough shots. Some were easy shots, the result of Boston's indifferent defense. But with Nash (16 points, 14 assists) setting up one teammate after another, the odds were on the Suns' side.
For the Celtics, every possession in the closing minutes seemed like an adventure. The team that played aggressively on offense and attacked the basket for the first half and much of the third quarter started to settle for jump shots late in the third and early in the fourth. It was a mixed bag as the Celtics struggled to stay patient.
But despite the Celtics' fifth loss in a row, there were plenty of positive signs from where coach Doc Rivers was sitting, standing, or pacing on the sideline. Rivers liked the way Boston did not fold when Phoenix made runs, pushed the tempo, hustled after loose balls, and played unselfishly.
"I told them after the game, 'Guys, that's Celtic basketball,' " said Rivers. "That's the way we have to play, even when our [big men] come back . . . It was a great effort obviously and it was a blueprint of how we should play more often."
But for all the blueprint-worthy signs, there was still the glaring problem of Boston's overall defense. Phoenix shot 61 percent, including 71 percent in the fourth quarter. A lot of the Suns' shots came with the shot clock winding down, but that was not enough to make a difference.
"We did our job defensively, but they hit some shots," said Ryan Gomes, who scored 10 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter. " We need to close out these games that we have in our possession."
The Celtics held a game-high 8-point lead (79-71) late in the third quarter. But when the Suns followed a 3-pointer by Barbosa with an alley-oop dunk by Marion (29 points) and regained the lead, 99-98, with 5:05 remaining, the Celtics appeared on the verge of a collapse.
Rivers called a timeout. The Celtics regrouped, then regained confidence and the lead when Delonte West nailed a 23-footer with 3:41 left. But Phoenix took the lead for good when Marion hit a 3-pointer 25 seconds later. The Suns' advantage did not extend beyond 4 points until Marion knocked down a 20-footer with one second remaining on the shot clock, and 16.2 on the game clock. The basket pushed Phoenix ahead, 114-108.
The Celtics came out of a timeout and Paul Pierce (36 points) nailed a 3-pointer, bringing Boston within 3 with 13.2 seconds left. But after a pair of free throws by Marion a couple of seconds later, the Celtics never got the shot they wanted to force the Suns into their second overtime game in as many nights.