Concentration Costs C's During Stunner in Phoenix
PHOENIX - The Celtics concentrated on a comeback victory for the majority of Sunday evening's matchup with the Suns in Phoenix. When it mattered most, however, concentration was their missing link.
Boston made a quartet of blunders during the final 21 seconds of the game that allowed Phoenix to grab a stunning 109-106 victory at the buzzer. Tyler Ulis' step-back 3-pointer over Isaiah Thomas gave Phoenix the walk-off win.
Boston had overcome a 15-point, second-half deficit to put itself in the driver's seat for a victory during the final minute. It owned a two-point lead with two free throws to come for Jaylen Brown with 20.7 seconds left in the game.
The odds were forever in Boston’s favor at that point, as both Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas pointed out after the game.
“Of course you feel like when they start fouling, that’s it, you’ve got the game won,” Crowder admitted.
“We knew if we just defended and got stops they would have to foul and we’d get to the free-throw line, and a usual game you’ll end up winning,” Thomas added.
Here’s the problem: this wasn’t a usual game.
Unusual, actually, is probably an understatement. This was March Madness at its finest.
Brown stepped to the line and clanked his first free throw. His second fell through the net to provide the Celtics with a 105-102 lead.
Everyone in the arena and watching at home knew that the Suns would attempt to gain points back as quickly as possible at the other end, but Boston showed no concentration in attempting to prevent that from happening.
The C’s defense was akin to what a viewer would typically see from a team that owns a multiple-possession lead during the final 20 seconds of a game. “Matador defense” is what it’s usually nicknamed.
Eric Bledsoe took Phoenix’s inbound pass and quickly took it toward Phoenix’s basket. He came off of a screen outside the top of the 3-point line and when he turned the corner, he found nothing but clear court in front of him.
Not a single member of the Celtics was in the paint, or even close to it. In fact, Terry Rozier, who was stuck to Tyler Ulis in the left corner of the court to prevent a 3-point attempt, was the only member of the Celtics who was inside the 3-point line.
Bledsoe took the ball in for an uncontested bucket that looked like it was straight out of the pregame layup line.
“You want to keep the ball in front but you certainly don’t want to give a 3,” Brad Stevens said of the defense his team should have played on that possession. “So that’s a tough thing, but at the end of the day, you don’t want him to score that quick.”
Only seven seconds ticked off the clock between Brown’s free throw and Bledsoe’s basket, which made it a one-point game with 13.7 seconds remaining.
Still, the Celtics were in control. As Crowder and Thomas pointed out, Phoenix would still be forced to send Boston to the free-throw line in order to gain another possession. That’s exactly what the Suns did with 11.7 seconds left on the clock.
Thomas caught an inbound pass and dribbled into the left corner of the court before Ulis fouled him. Now it was Thomas’ turn to straddle the line in the clutch and build upon his team’s leverage.
Thomas, a 90.8 percent free-throw shooter on the season who had already cashed in on all nine of his attempts to that point in the game, got the same yips that Brown had experienced just moments earlier. Thomas, too, was errant on his initial free throw attempt before cashing in on the second to make it a two-point game.
Now the Celtics had missed two critical free throws and allowed one uncontested layup in a span of 8.8 seconds of game action, each of which provided the Suns with more and more belief that Boston’s lead was not so insurmountable.
Shockingly, Boston’s most costly blunder was still to come.
Bledsoe scored yet another driving layup with 4.0 seconds remaining in the game to tie the score up at 106-106. Boston was not to blame for this one, as Bledsoe made a terrific play and was challenged by Crowder both on the drive and on the finish.
The devastating blow the C’s suffer came just seconds later, when Crowder and Thomas, two players who typically excel when the pressure is on, miscommunicated to the highest of levels.
Crowder took the ball out of bounds but did not immediately toss an inbound pass to Thomas. As Thomas said after the contest of the ensuing inbound play, “I thought Jae would get it out quicker than he did. I don’t know if he was looking to see if we had a timeout or what. I don’t know what he was looking to do. Not saying it was his fault, but when I looked at him I thought he would get it out quicker so we could go.”
Instead, the Celtics stopped.
Thomas briefly looked away from Crowder and by the time he looked back, the ball was already in his lap. He failed to corral the pass in short order, and as he fumbled for possession, Marquese Chriss swiped in to knock the ball loose. Thomas accidentally kicked the loose ball right into Ulis’ hands with just a couple of ticks left on the clock, and Ulis then connected on a wild, step-back 3-pointer at the buzzer for the win.
“We should’ve won the game,” Thomas said after the defeat. “We just made a terrible turnover at the end.
“The basketball gods were on their side today. Crazy shot.”
Crazy shot, yes. Basketball gods favoring the Suns? Not so much.
Boston missed two critical free throws that almost certainly would have sealed a victory had they been converted upon. The C’s allowed an uncontested layup with a one-possession lead in the final 20 seconds. And, most shocking of all, the Celtics turned the ball over on an inbound pass when overtime or a win were a near certainty.
Concentration – or lack thereof – dealt Boston a stunning defeat in Phoenix.