Suns-Celtics Preview

The Associated Press

A point guard's long-awaited return didn't help the Phoenix Suns this week, and it hasn't done much good for the Boston Celtics, either.

The difference is that Phoenix hopes Eric Bledsoe can spark a playoff push, whereas Boston is just playing out the string and trying to get Rajon Rondo back in top form.

The stumbling Suns are coming off a rare loss to a sub-.500 team despite Bledsoe coming back and will look to avoid another Friday night when they open a three-game road trip against Rondo and the Celtics.

Wednesday seemed like a good time for Bledsoe to make a triumphant return, with Phoenix (36-28) coming off back-to-back road losses and hosting a struggling Cleveland team which is among the league's worst on the road. Instead, the Suns got off to a rough start and lost 110-101.

Bledsoe, who missed 33 games after undergoing knee surgery, had 15 points and nine assists in 32 minutes off the bench but shot 5 for 16.

"I felt great for the most part," said Bledsoe, averaging 17.8 points and 6.0 assists.

The Suns fell to 16-9 when he plays. They did relatively well without him through Feb. 21, standing sixth in the Western Conference after winning three straight coming out of the All-Star break. However, they've since gone 3-7 to fall to ninth, two games behind Memphis and Dallas for the last two playoff spots.

"We have to play like we have been playing from the jump – proving people wrong," Bledsoe said. "... We have a tough stretch of games going on the road, so we just have to take care of business."

This game in Boston (22-43) is seemingly the easiest matchup on the trip, with the next two coming on back-to-back nights against the Atlantic Division's top teams. The Suns play first-place Toronto on Sunday before facing Brooklyn, and those teams have a combined 21-7 record in the past five weeks.

Only one of Phoenix's losses since Jan. 5 had been to a team currently under .500 until Wednesday. The Suns were outscored 37-24 by the Cavaliers in the first quarter, and they're giving up an average of 29.5 in that period since the break - fourth-worst in the league.

"You would think they would know the situation with the games we are in, the standings and that kind of stuff," coach Jeff Hornacek said. "... We have to win games we are supposed to."

Boston is 8-17 since Rondo's return, though he's missed six games to rest as he continues to recover from last January's knee injury. He sat out Wednesday with the Celtics playing for a second straight night, and they lost 116-92 to New York.

Rondo should play Friday and hopes to turn around his shooting woes. He's 9 for 30 from the field in his past two games, 5 for 19 from 3-point range in the last four and 7 of 14 at the foul line this month. However, he's averaged 10.6 assists since the All-Star break.

Boston's first game following the break was a 100-94 loss at Phoenix on Feb. 19 in which Rondo had 18 points and 10 assists but was 7 for 22 from the field.

Phoenix had a 30-8 advantage in fast-break points. The Suns are scoring 20.5 per game since the break, compared to 11.3 for Boston.

"You can't make errors against them because they are coming, they are coming fast," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after last month's matchup. "... We can agree that that team pushes it harder than any team we have seen all year."

Jeff Green scored 27 points for the third time in six games Wednesday. In the other three, he totaled 31 on 11-of-34 shooting.

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