PHOENIX — The Celtics’ locker room had mostly emptied after the team’s 99-85 win over the Suns on Monday when Jaylen Brown looked across the room at Kemba Walker, who had just finished getting dressed at his stall.
“I can’t believe we lost to the Kings,” Brown said, referring to Sunday’s one-point setback. “That should be, what, 12 in a row?”
Walker acknowledged that, yes, if the Celtics had defeated Sacramento, they would now be riding a 12-game winning streak. But he also told Brown not to worry about that.
A few minutes later, Walker stood in front of a cluster of cameras and microphones and made it clear that the way the last two days unfolded — a last-second loss followed by immediately by a resounding win — could actually be the route that offers the most long-term value for this team.
“We’re not going to win every night, but when you have opportunities to bounce back and learn from mistakes and you actually come out and do it, it just feels good,” Walker said. “It lets you know about your team and the guys you’re playing with. We have a special group.”
In the hallway a few minutes earlier, coach Brad Stevens had a similar refrain.
“We talked about the special teams I’ve been around don’t let yesterday’s loss linger, they get right back at it.” Stevens said. “So that’s very, very encouraging.”
Instead of winning 12 in a row, the Celtics have grabbed 11 of their last 12, which isn’t so bad, either.
For a little while, though, there was a concern that this latest victory had come at a considerable cost. With just over nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, guard Marcus Smart — the heartbeat of this team — took a bad step as he ran along the baseline on defense. He turned his right ankle and collapsed to the floor before signaling to the bench that it was not good. Stevens called timeout and Smart was helped to the locker room.
After the game, though, it became clear that the concern level about Smart’s injury fell somewhere between low and hardly existent. As Smart sat at his locker his ankle was not even wrapped as he pulled a black sock over it. He joked with teammates and rotated the ankle a few times, neither wincing nor reacting as he did.
“There wasn’t a lot of swelling,” Smart said. “Minimal swelling for it, where I’m able to walk. I’m able to still shift, and plant and move side-to-side so that’s good.”
He said that he believes he irritated a previous ankle injury he had recently recovered from, but thinks he will be able to play against the Clippers on Wednesday.
Jayson Tatum had 26 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Celtics on Monday, and Walker added 19 points and 5 assists. But after another slow beginning by the starters, Boston received some important lifts from the bench.
Grant Williams was on the court for the final six minutes of the second quarter while Boston flipped a two-point hole into a 57-42 halftime lead, and his two big blocks in scramble situations ignited the Celtics.
“Stuff he does that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet that really helps our team and gives us energy and life,” Tatum said.
Brad Wanamaker, meanwhile, continued to provide steady play as a backup point guard, including a fourth-quarter stretch after Smart was injured and Phoenix had sliced a 20-point deficit to 12 when he scored five quick points and then added a steal and an assist.
The Suns, who have been one of the NBA’s more surprising teams over the first month of this season, were without starting point guard Ricky Rubio, who was a last-minute scratch because of back spasms. Phoenix was never able to get on track without its floor general, committing 19 turnovers and making 27.8 percent of its 3-pointers.
Star guard Devin Booker has caused fits for the Celtics in the past, including his historic 70-point game in TD Garden three seasons ago. But on Monday, Boston was mostly able to subdue him by using constant traps that forced Booker to look for help elsewhere. Booker had just 13 shot attempts and scored 20 points, 5.5 below his season average.
“You’ve got to be active,” Tatum said. “He’s one of the best scorers in the league. You’re not really going to stop somebody. It takes a team effort to try to contain him as much as possible. We did a pretty good job.”
With this test complete, an even bigger one awaits Wednesday, when the Celtics play in Los Angeles. Clippers star Kawhi Leonard has missed the last three games with a knee contusion, and his status for this matchup is unclear. But Smart insists that he will be ready, sore ankle or not.