The Celtics clawed back from a 17-point, third-quarter deficit Sunday but stalled before the comeback could be completed and ultimately fell to the Suns, 100-91. Boston trailed for the final 47 minutes of the game.
Jayson Tatum had 23 points on 8-for-22 shooting and Kemba Walker made just 4 of 20 shots and had 14 points. The Celtics made just 35.5 percent of their attempts overall and the Suns held a 46-26 edge in points in the paint.
Walker struggled throughout the game, but hit a 3-pointer with 2:29 left — his second in a row — to pull Boston within 91-86. Then Payton Pritchard, who connected on four second-half 3-pointers to spark Boston’s surge, drilled a deep one from the top of the key to make it 94-91 at the 1:04 mark. But Devin Booker answered with an 18-foot pull-up and Tatum missed at the other end, and the Celtics ran out of time.
Observations from the game:
▪ The Celtics were certainly hopeful that Walker’s 24-point performance Friday that included a game-winning jumper would be the start of a surge, but all of the momentum was lost on Sunday.
Afterward, both center Daniel Theis and coach Brad Stevens returned to the notion that the Celtics need to do more as a team to help Walker thrive.
“We’ll go back and look at some of his drives and how we can space the floor better,” Stevens said. “I think we all can do a better job for him. That’s what we all will focus on. That’s what I’ll focus on, because I know he’s going to focus on himself.”
For the second time in his last three games, Walker pointed to his mental lapses as the primary reason for his struggles. He said he knows that the Celtics need more from him.
“I’ve got to be better,” he said. “That’s it.”
▪ It was Pritchard’s second game after being sidelined for two weeks with a knee sprain. And for the second consecutive game his finish was considerably more impressive than his start. In eight first-half minutes the rookie was 0 for 2 — including an air-balled 3-pointer that missed by several feet — and had a rebound and an assist as Boston was outscored by 5 points during his stint.
In the second half he connected on 4 of 7 3-pointers, played pestering on-ball defense and grabbed four rebounds, as the Celtics outscored the Suns by 6 points over his 15 minutes.
“I thought he was a totally different guy in the second,” Stevens said. “That’s two games in a row where he’s — now coming back from the knee — where I thought he looked tentative in the first. We need him to play with that kind of assertiveness and aggressiveness when he checks into the game.”
▪ The Celtics committed just six turnovers and drilled 17 3-pointers. More often than not, that will be the recipe for a win. But they were undone by connecting on just 32.7 percent of their two-point shots, including 3 for 15 on two-pointers outside of the paint.
“We settled for a lot of jumpers,” Theis said, “instead of attacking the rim a little bit more.”
▪ With Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart still out, Stevens inserted second-year guard Carsen Edwards into the starting lineup. Edwards scored a season-high 16-points in Friday’s win over the Clippers. He hit his first 3-pointer in that game and rode the momentum for the rest of the night. On Sunday he missed his first 3 and had very little impact after that. He was 1 for 5 and had some tough moments trying to defend Chris Paul. The Celtics were outscored by 21 points during his 17 minutes.
▪ The Celtics’ frustration was visible during a tough start to the third quarter. After Tatum missed a 3-pointer he stopped to complain about being fouled, and the Suns did not wait around for him, as they raced the other way for a 3-point play. Then Tatum picked up a technical foul anyway.
“Me and the ref disagreed on something, but ultimately they’re not going to change the call,” Tatum said. “I’ve just got to figure out more ways to show that I’m getting fouled.”
A couple of minutes later Walker was assessed with a technical foul when he complained about the lack of a foul call.
▪ Although Brown missed his second consecutive game because of knee soreness, Stevens said he felt much better on Sunday. He completed a light on-court workout and it sounds like he will play against the Jazz on Tuesday as long as there are no setbacks.
“All trending really positive,” Stevens said.
▪ Tristan Thompson didn’t have a big scoring afternoon, but he caused real problems for the Suns under the basket battling for missed shots. He finished with six offensive rebounds in 21 minutes and kept a few others alive. Stevens said he started Thompson over Theis to give Boston a physical presence against Suns big man DeAndre Ayton.
▪ For the first time this season the Suns welcomed a small number of fans to their arena. Tickets were given to 1,500 local healthcare workers, which was a nice touch. The Celtics should follow this approach whenever they’re allowed to start allowing a limited number of spectators inside TD Garden.