PHOENIX - Three is a magic number the Celtics have avoided - until now.
Boston lost its third straight game for the first time this season last night at US Airways Center, dropping an 85-77 decision to the Phoenix Suns.
The 77 points represented a season low for the Celtics. After being 16-0 against Western Conference teams, the Celtics now stand at 16-3. The Suns, meanwhile have won their last 11 against the Eastern Conference.
"That was a beautiful piece of art right there," said a sarcastic Celtics coach Doc Rivers, whose team shot 38.5 percent from the field. "That was ugly."
The Celtics had allowed opponents 100 points in four previous games, but defense was not the problem last night.
"We were bad offensively," said the understated Rivers. "As a coach, I'm happy we showed up defensively."
The Suns started quickly, racing to a 19-4 lead, capped by Leandro Barbosa's lay-in. Boston went 4 minutes 42 seconds without scoring before Kevin Garnett's hoop made it 19-6. The Suns finished the quarter leading, 24-13, shot 53.3 percent, and scored 16 fast-break points. The Celtics shot 20.8 percent (5 of 24) and submitted a season low for points in a first quarter.
"We couldn't make shots," said Rajon Rondo, who shot 5 of 12 and had 12 points. "That's about it. We ran our sets, we just couldn't make shots."
About the only dent the Celtics made in the Suns came when Barbosa collided with Paul Pierce with 4:36 remaining in the first. Barbosa needed three stitches above his right eye.
The Celtics found their offensive game and turned up their defense early in the second quarter, using a 13-3 run to trim their deficit to 27-26 on an emphatic one-handed jam by Garnett. Steve Nash's lay-in with 5:05 left accounted for the Suns' first field goal of the quarter and pushed their lead to 29-26.
After jawing and tangling with Amare Stoudemire (28 points) from the outset, Garnett (a team-high 19 points) went to the bench with three fouls after elbowing Phoenix's star forward. Phoenix scored the next 9 points to take a 36-26 lead with 3:24 left on Raja Bell's 3-pointer. Pierce then committed an offensive foul with 1:51 left in the half and Boston down, 42-28, heading to the bench with three personals.
The Suns cruised into halftime with a 43-30 lead, holding the Celtics to 29.3 percent shooting (12 for 41). Pierce and Ray Allen shot a combined 1 for 14 through two quarters, totaling just 7 points. Boston's previous low for points in a half had been 33 against Detroit in the second half Dec. 19.
Shaquille O'Neal, playing his second game with the Suns, was scoreless at the half but had eight rebounds.
"Shaq's presence really changed the game," Rivers said. O'Neal finished with 4 points, 14 rebounds, and 2 blocked shots.
After being dunked on by Garnett with 9:21 left in the third quarter, Stoudemire mouthed off and was called for a technical foul. Allen made the free throw, and the Celtics trailed, 47-37. The Suns outscored the Celtics, 20-19, in the quarter for a 63-49 lead. Pierce and Allen combined for 3 points in the third.
Leon Powe's lay-in with 10:54 remaining sliced Phoenix's lead to 63-54. After missing 10 of his first 11 shots, Allen's 3-pointer made it 68-59.
In a play that summed up the night for Boston, Allen turned the ball over to Nash (18 points, 5 assists, 7 rebounds), and he nailed a 3-pointer to give the Suns a 74-61 lead with 5:51 remaining.
There have been numerous big trades in the Western Conference over the last month. But of all the moves, Rivers was most enamored by O'Neal being dealt from the Heat and the Suns.
"[The Suns] are just really good," Rivers said prior to the game. "It changes everything with them having Shaq. It makes them one of the favorites, or the favorite."
"I was shocked and surprised like a lot of people that he got traded," said Celtic James Posey, a teammate of O'Neal on Miami's 2005-06 championship team. "But I'm happy to see him back now playing a little bit."
After watching last night's carnage, particularly on offense, Rivers was asked about the Celtics' morale.
"Not bad," he said. "We lost . . . no one wants to lose, but we'll be fine."