The Celtics couldn’t have asked for a better start, but they sure as heck could have asked for a better finish Wednesday night against the Phoenix Suns.
The 37 points on 70.8 percent shooting that Boston posted in the first quarter steadily faded into obscurity, as the soul-searching group crumbled against the bottom-dwelling Suns in the remaining 36 minutes of the game. After making 17 baskets in the first quarter alone, the Celtics managed to hit only 11 field goals throughout the entirety of the second half.
“It was just a different game,” point guard Kyrie Irving told reporters.
The Suns, who entered Wednesday’s contest tied with the Chicago Bulls for the league’s worst record, extended their win streak to four with the 111-103 victory.
Here’s what we learned:
Robert Williams still has a ways to go.
Rookie center Robert Williams once again ignited the Garden crowd with five volleyball-spike blocks, bringing his season total to 22. A valuable rim protector, Williams continues to swat nearly every shot he can and is averaging 3.2 blocked shots over his last five games. Suns center and fellow rookie Deandre Ayton said Williams was doing similar things back when the two faced off in college.
“That’s still the same guy blocking shots to the, what, 20th row?” said Ayton, who logged a key block of his own on an after-timeout layup attempt by Irving during the final minutes of the fourth quarter. “I have to learn a thing or two from him on protecting the rim.”
On the other end of the floor, Williams added eight points including two via a lob pass from Irving in the first quarter. The 21-year-old, however, seems restricted on offense, rarely looking to attack the basket when receiving the ball outside of five feet from the rim. Of the 18 shots he’s made this season, all 18 have come within the restricted area and 14 have been dunks.
During the fourth quarter, with the Celtics trailing by eight, Williams caught a pass from Irving at the top of the arc, and, despite having an open lane, elected to dribble once and dish the ball to Marcus Smart in the corner. His hesitancy to put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket may be a function of experience, according to coach Brad Stevens.
“He had some opportunities on offense that he’ll make plays with when he gets a little bit more used to the game and used to playing with those other guys,” Stevens said. “They were not paying a whole lot of attention to him on the perimeter and in the seams. Those are plays that he can make on that end of the floor.”
Williams agreed getting more reps will boost his comfort level offensively. With Aron Baynes out indefinitely after breaking his hand and Al Horford dealing with patellofemoral pain syndrome, Williams will likely receive an uptake in playing time. He is currently averaging 8.8 minutes per game.
“We expect a lot out of Rob, but also there’s a learning curve for him,” Irving said. “He does a lot of things great already, so I think the sky’s the limit for his potential and what he brings to our team.”
The Celtics got burned on one key stat.
The Suns, who entered Wednesday’s game ranked 28th in the league in offensive rebounding, grabbed 21 offensive boards and generated 20 second-chance points against the Celtics.
“It breaks people’s spirits, getting offensive rebounds and getting new possessions and converting off of that,” Irving said.
No Baynes, no Horford, and no Marcus Morris, who was out with right knee soreness, meant the Celtics were likely going to have a tough time on the glass. Stevens said the trio’s absences contributed to Phoenix being the “faster, more physical team.” Still, Irving, averaging a career-high 4.8 rebounds per game, noted the guards should take it upon themselves to contribute in that area.
“When we’re missing guys, we have to help Rob rebound as well,” he said. “He’s contesting and trying to go for every block. Helping him out is just as important as him going for the rebound. That’s part of being on a team, we all have to cover for each other.”
Inconsistency continues to plague the team.
The Celtics’ quarter splits — 37-25-18-23 — were not pretty. For the ninth game this season, they have registered a quarter in which they’ve scored under 20 points as well as one in which they’ve scored 30-plus. Perhaps the most egregious example of their ups downs, however, was Friday night’s game against the Atlanta Hawks in which their splits were 42-25-41-21.
“We just got to play hard the entire game,” Irving said. “We can’t pick and choose.”
Forward Jayson Tatum attributed the inconsistencies to “human nature,” saying “nobody’s perfect,” but for a team with as much talent as the Celtics, the rollercoaster ride seems to be more a reflection of still-developing chemistry as well as some dissonance between individual and collective goals.
While things appeared to be improving — Boston boasted the league’s best net rating during its eight-game win streak — a home loss to the Suns certainly triggers more questions regarding why the team has floundered in situations where success should come rather easily. Irving related much of the struggles back to effort.
“We just have to have consistency amongst all our units, whoever is in,” he said. “Just a cohesion where the ball’s moving and guys actually want to see other players be in the position to score the basketball. That means delivering on time and actually caring about and actually trying on certain possessions.
“When we try, we’re in the game all the time. When we don’t, we’re clearly not.”
Kelly Oubre is on a new team, but Boston’s feelings toward him are the same.
Making his debut as a member of the Suns, forward Kelly Oubre Jr. encountered a familiar greeting: a chorus of boos at the Garden.
Oubre — who was ejected in Game 3 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals for charging at and knocking over Kelly Olynyk — said he thought the negative reception may have subsided, but the 23-year-old was sorely mistaken.
“I really thought they were going to be over that, man,” he said. “Kelly’s gone in Miami. I’m gone in Phoenix. We’re on different teams now, but it’s going to follow me my whole career. So I’m going to embrace it. I love it.”
Embrace it he did. Oubre blew several kisses to the crowd to, as he put it, “show them some love.” Logging 26 minutes and 13 points off the bench, he said the win “felt really good” in spite of the less-than-lukewarm welcome.
“I think I did a little bit extra today, because they don’t really like me here.”