PHOENIX — When Boston fans here tried to start ‘Lets’s go, Celtics’ chants early Wednesday night, they were drowned out with little trouble. When the push resumed in the fourth quarter, with the Celtics’ onslaught in its late, most humbling stages, the Suns supporters no longer had the energy to resist.
This matchup of the top teams from each conference turned into a thorough, relentless demolition, and the Celtics’ commanding 125-98 win officially put the rest of the NBA on notice.
Afterward, the Celtics (21-5) insisted that they were not trying to make a statement in this nationally televised game against this high-profile opponent. But even if that was not the intention, it was the result.
They led by as many as 45 points during the third quarter, a margin that is almost unheard of at this level. For much of the game the Suns looked either stunned or traumatized. And the Celtics did not let up.
“We executed our game plan and played very hard at every moment,” forward Blake Griffin said. “When we were up 2, 10, 20 and 30, we played the same way.”
Forward Grant Williams was glad to see his team still scrambling for loose balls when it had such a massive lead. There was plenty of room to let up, but no interest in doing so.
Williams said that when the Celtics played in Phoenix last December, he heard Suns forward Jae Crowder mocking Boston’s isolation-heavy sets. Crowder said that if they continued, the Suns would pummel the Celtics by 30 points.
“Next thing, we looked up and we were down 30,” Williams recalled. “And I was like, ‘Damn.’ I remember that to this day.”
The Celtics lost that game by 21 points and fell to 13-14 on the season. But Williams thinks the team learned valuable lessons that night. It closed the regular season by winning 38 of 55 games and later surged into the NBA Finals, where it fell to the Warriors in six games.
But as joyous as that run was, the abrupt ending wiped away those good feelings, and then some. All-Star forward Jayson Tatum said he still stews about the loss. And that’s the main reason why he reacted to Wednesday’s thrashing with a shrug.
“While we’re having fun and happy the way we’re playing, nobody in the locker room is celebrating or satisfied with where we’re at,” he said. “None of this means anything if we don’t hang a banner.”
But in a way, falling to Golden State helped shape this Celtics season that is becoming more memorable by the day. The players remember what it takes to get to that point, and they are learning what it will take to finish the job.
“We’re playing from our experiences, from the heartbreak and coming up short,” forward Jaylen Brown said, “and you’re seeing some of that being put forward into the season.”
Tatum and Brown had 25 points apiece to lead the Celtics on Wednesday. Both players were fine, but neither was spectacular. The Celtics, who seized control with an early 18-3 run, didn’t even shoot remarkably well from the 3-point line, or get a parade of free throws. They just attacked the basket constantly, and showed flashes of the defense that was unbreakable last year but has been uneven this season.
“Usually you have a game where you’re just not missing to get a big lead,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “But we did it with shot selection and defensive effort and execution.”
Boston was without center Al Horford, who was sidelined after entering COVID-19 health and safety protocols. But it didn’t matter. Williams was 6 for 6 and had 14 points, and Malcolm Brogdon added 16.
The Suns were hoping to receive a boost from Chris Paul, who returned after missing 14 games with a heel injury. Instead, they went 1 for 16 from the 3-point line in the first half and never had a chance. Paul had 4 points and 4 assists in 24 minutes, and star guard Devin Booker was just 6 for 17 from the field.
Mazzulla has attempted to temper expectations and overconfidence during this excellent start. On Wednesday, he pointed out that plenty of the Suns’ misses came on wide-open shots. If a few had gone in early in the game, he said, the entire night could have shifted.
“It’s not always going to be like this,” he said.
Maybe not, but at this point—barring significant injuries — it’s hard to envision this team spiraling into a prolonged rut. It’s just too deep and talented.
“We sub guys in, and those guys just bring the level up,” Griffin said. “Then the guys that just rested come back in and keep going...Everybody who comes in seems like they’re adding value.”