Isaiah Thomas in ‘hero’ role as Celtics defeat Suns
PHOENIX — As an observational offering for Monday’s thematic premise, the eighth seed in the NBA’s Western Conference certainly seems to have floated off to a galaxy far, far away.
Our first glimpse of Brandon Knight revealed a cold-blooded Jedi moment or two, but Isaiah Thomas stole the show by shooting the home team out of it.
"As bad as it seems," Suns guard Eric Bledsoe said, "we’re still not out of it. (We) gotta keep moving forward, keep being positive."
Right, the Suns’ 115-110 loss to the Boston Celtics on "Star Wars Night" drops them a mere 2 1/2 games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder (the New Orleans Pelicans actually sit in ninth place, 1/2 game ahead of the locals). And OKC has promised that superstar Kevin Durant will be out of commission at least a week.
But in the scorched-earth aftermath of last week’s trade deadline, the Suns (29-28) are 0-3 since flipping their roster. And the impetus for at least part of that upheaval can be attributed to a 0-3 run that preceded it.
There were several optimistic notes during last weekend’s road losses, but similar issues that plagued the playoff drive in recent weeks are lingering. This loss to the Celtics (21-33) included some obvious variables inherent in a 20-point deficit.
"Well, when you get down by 20, you’re fighting an uphill battle the whole game," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team lost for the eighth time in nine games.
For specifics, Markieff Morris collected only three rebounds and didn’t shoot a free throw in 30 minutes. Tardy team-wide rotations and close-outs enabled the Celtics to make 10 of 15 3-point attempts in the opening half and 14 of 29 for the game.
Instead of digging even deeper into any performance-related redundancy, however, let’s look at a couple of the evening’s entertaining subplots.
We’ll begin with Knight, the 23-year-old, combo-guard and prize from last week’s transactional flurry.
His first action as a Sun in Phoenix had some swell moments. For example, he made 2 of 4 attempts behind the arc in the third quarter, during which he scored eight of his 20 points.
But the collective attempt to chase down Boston was the impetus for a vigorous 3-point campaign (9 of 32 team-wide) that included a 4-for-11 showing from Knight.
When it was over, he stood in front of the locker that last week belonged to Goran Dragic and answered questions with an emphasis on perspective.
"It felt good," Knight said of his assimilation. "It’s not perfect. Don’t expect it to be. There’s definitely some things we’ve got to get better at as a whole, but we’ll get there, though."
Working with Bledsoe in the starting backcourt looked promising at times … and a bit sluggish at too many others.
Bledsoe, who made 8 of 18 shots and scored 21 points, mitigated the impact of his 10 assists by committing six turnovers. Knight was 8 of 19 from the field and matched his four turnovers with four dimes.
"Chemistry don’t happen overnight," Knight said when asked about developing a rhythm alongside Bledsoe. "It’s not two games, three games … sometimes it takes a while. But you’ve got to work on it … it’s going to come with time. The goal is to build chemistry, but the goal also is to win games. I think tonight we did a poor job getting stops defensively."
And now we get to Thomas, who scored 21 points in a reunion with the Suns just four days after they traded him. Four of those points occurred at 1:37 in the final quarter, the first three on deep dagger from the right wing with Knight contesting just enough to be called for a foul.
Isaiah made the free throw, pushing Boston to a 105-100 advantage.
"It was a lucky play," Thomas said. "I just shot the ball and he (Knight) wouldn’t let me come down and it was a big play. I just shot the ball with confidence and tried to make a big play and it went down."
Thomas, who made 6 of 16 shots from the field, followed that with a steal and eventually converted a layup to give the Cs a seven-point cushion.
"I love the big moment," he said. "I want to be the hero. It’s just emotion. I was just going out there trying to win the game.
"There’s no hard feelings between me and the Phoenix Suns. My closest friends are on that team. It’s just going out there and doing whatever it takes to win. When I get out there, I don’t have any friends."
Thomas, who is considered, by many, the catalyst for creating the on-court chemistry issues that inspired the departures of Dragic and himself, was greeted warmly by the Phoenix crowd when the entered the game in the first quarter.
Yeah, the Celtics also are using Isaiah as a substitute, a role to which Thomas doesn’t exactly aspire. He also doesn’t understand why this reluctance to embrace coming off the bench makes him a bad guy.
A few days ago, we could have referenced this as "Start Wars."
"I did, who doesn’t? " Thomas said when asked about his much-publicized desire to be in the Suns’ starting lineup. "It’s like a bad thing to say you want to start and you don’t. I don’t get that."
But after some nice commentary regarding his time here, the 5-foot-9 shot-maker was asked about that squeaking-wheel reputation.
"I was a team player, I didn’t complain to anybody," Thomas said. "I went out there and did my job. The guy that complained … you seen it in the media. I didn’t say anything."
The complaining guy, of course, was Dragic.
Before defending himself, Thomas sounded quite pragmatic during a pre-game chat with reporters.
"I feel really weird," he said of returning here so quickly after the trade. "I drove to the game today, so that’s more weird than anything. But it is what it is, that’s the business of the NBA.
"I love the city. My teammates were great. The front office was good to me. I had no complaints, other than the things … I wanted to play more, other than that. I liked it, it was great. My family liked it, I liked it."
And he didn’t unload any harsh words regarding the Suns’ polarizing simultaneous, three-point-guard deployment.
"For the most part it worked," he said. "We were in playoff position … when we did play together it was positive … and it worked. It’s tough to do when you have three talented point guards that need the ball to be effective. It’s tough. For the most part, it worked."