PHOENIX — By the time it was over, Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving stood near midcourt, gasping for air and tugging at his shorts, as chants of “Let’s go, Celtics” reverberated throughout this arena that is more than 2,500 miles from Boston.
For much of Thursday night, the Celtics appeared on the brink of a disastrous loss against one of the NBA’s worst teams. They made just 10 shots during a first half in which Irving was the only starter to score a point. They trailed by as many as 22 points, and still trailed by 14 with less than four minutes left in regulation.
But as the young Suns essentially hoped and pleaded for time to run out, the Celtics attacked like the playoff-tested team that they are. Marcus Morris drilled a 3-pointer just before the fourth-quarter buzzer to send the game to overtime, and then Irving mostly took care of the rest, willing the Celtics to a 116-109 win.
“The team in the second half, I know who that is,” Irving said. “The team in the first half, that’s not who we want to consistently be on any stage. We learned a lot about staying resilient.”
This was an impressive and important comeback, but the truth was the Celtics should never have needed it. Phoenix has won just two games this year, and NBA Finals contenders do not fall behind by 22 points against teams like this.
So there were no celebrations in the Boston locker room afterward. Marcus Smart’s frustration remained quite visible. The fiery guard, who started the second half in place of Jayson Tatum to provide a burst, said the Celtics had seemed “dead” and “flat” earlier. He was not happy about that.
“We all know we can give a little bit more, each and every last one of us,” he said. “And it’s just sad to see us not giving that. It’s sad that it takes something like that, for us to be down like that, to do that.”
Nevertheless, there was a sense of relief, and even optimism, because coming back from two sizable deficits and eking out a win is certainly better than the alternative.
“It reminded me of last year a little bit,” Jaylen Brown said, “some of those come-from-behind wins when you can’t count us out, because we never give up. It was good to see that.”
After making just 10 of 46 shots in the first half, Boston started overtime by making six in a row. Irving finished with 39 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists, and his most important play ended with a pass rather than a shot.
With 43.1 seconds left in regulation, Suns star Devin Booker had a chance to make it a three-possession game but made just one of two free throws, putting the Suns ahead, 98-92.
Irving drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key, and then knocked the ball away at the other end before finding Brown for a layup that made it 98-97. T.J. Warren stretched his team’s lead back to 3 points with a pair of free throws with 6.1 seconds left, giving the Celtics one chance to tie it.
The inbounds pass came to Morris, who had his back to the basket about six feet beyond the top of the key. It was a perfect opportunity for the Suns to foul him, but they stayed back. Morris handed the ball off to a streaking Irving, who drew a double-team on the left arc. It was another chance to foul, but Phoenix did not.
“Maybe could have, but they didn’t [foul],” Morris said, “so we made them pay.”
Irving slipped a pass back to Morris, and his 3-pointer splashed through the net, sending the game to overtime. In the extra session, a game that had been something of an offensive slog turned into a shootout, as the teams combined to make their first nine shots.
Irving started it with a steal and a layup, the added a floater and another layup. But after Booker (38 points) tied it at 109 with a 3-pointer with 2:20 left, the Suns would not score again.
Brown hit a 3 from the right corner and Morris added a layup 26 seconds later before Irving swatted Booker’s layup attempt at the other end. The Celtics, somehow, had escaped.
“That second half just showed us who we really are and what we’re capable of when we’re focused and actually go out to play,” Smart said.
The first half, on the other hand, was brutal. The Celtics shot just 21.7 percent from the field and committed 10 turnovers. Starters other than Irving combined to go 0 for 15 and did not score a point.
At the break, Smart said, a frustrated coach Brad Stevens simply came into the locker room and told his players to figure it out. Smart and Irving then addressed the team.
“We’ve been down worse than this,” Irving recounted. “It’s not a situation any of us haven’t been in. It’s, ‘What are we going to do about it?’ ”
The Celtics were crisp and engaged in the second half, but still trailed by 14 points when Booker hit a jumper with 3:40 left in regulation. Then Boston finally crafted the rally everyone here seemed to be expecting, blitzing Phoenix with a 9-0 burst to pull within 94-89 with less than two minutes left.
Booker did convert a 3-point play to stretch the lead back to 97-89 with 1:37 left. But the Celtics’ final comeback was still to come.
Friday night figures to offer a significant challenge. The Celtics will be playing their second game in as many nights, this time against a talented and well-rested Jazz team. And Boston will have to do it without Irving, who will miss the game to attend his grandfather’s memorial service.
Smart was asked if this escape against the Suns could serve as the wakeup call this team needs.
“I hope so,” he said. “I really do. We’ll find out tomorrow.”
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com.