PHOENIX -- When Tyler Ulis was a freshman at the University of Kentucky, Wildcats coach John Calipari set up a call in which Isaiah Thomas offered advice from one 5-foot-9 hoopster to another. Thomas was proof that an undersized guard could thrive in the NBA, and he implored Ulis to be himself.
On Sunday, their paths crossed for the first time at the pro level. And not only did they engage in one of the most entertaining jump balls in league history, but Ulis capped a career night by hitting a buzzer-beating 3-pointer after a Thomas turnover in Phoenix's improbable 109-106 triumph at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
Ulis, a rookie known more for his defense and playmaking, finished with a career-best 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Despite making only seven 3-pointers before Sunday's game, he confidently connected on a pull-up 3 over Thomas to cap a wild final sequence.
But Brown missed the first of two free throws, and Phoenix's Eric Bledsoe went quick for a layup. The Celtics called their final timeout to get Thomas, lifted in favor of defense, back on the court, and they were rewarded when he was fouled on the inbounds. But Thomas, who entered the game shooting 90.8 percent at the line, missed his first free throw and Boston settled for being up by two with 11 seconds to go.
Again, Bledsoe attacked the basket and Boston, maybe too concerned with not fouling, allowed him another layup. With 4 seconds to go, Boston still had time for a final gasp but couldn't call timeout to advance the ball.
Jae Crowder hesitated ever so slightly on the inbounds, maybe in hopes of allowing Thomas to start some momentum heading the other way. Instead, Phoenix's Marquese Chriss charged at Thomas and, when Boston's point guard tried to let the ball bounce in front of him to prevent the clock from starting, he kicked it away as Chriss approached. Ulis picked up the loose ball, jabbed toward the basket to create space from Thomas, then pulled up from in front of the Phoenix bench and nailed the winner.
The shot ignited a wild celebration for a Suns team that has now won a season-high three games in a row.
"Quese was trying to go get Isaiah to harass him and keep him from getting his shot down the other end," Ulis said. "He turned around and got the steal. Time was running down so I had to let it go."
Inside the Celtics' locker room, Boston players owned their miscues, including chances to put the game away at the free throw line. And Crowder admitted he should have gone faster with the inbounds.
"We should have put the game away a long time ago and they came down and executed and tied the game," Crowder said. "Miscommunication on my end. I should have threw the ball into IT probably a little earlier. I put him in a bad situation and we lost the game."
Added Thomas: "I thought Jae would get it off quicker than he would. I don’t know if he was looking to see if we had a timeout or I don’t what he was looking to do -- not saying it was his fault. But when I looked down, I thought he would get it out quicker so we could go and then I looked away, looked back and Marquese Chriss was right there, he got a hand on it. I couldn’t get full control of it."
The Celtics had been excellent in tight games this season. They were 28-13 in what the league defines as clutch games -- within five points with five minutes to play -- which was six more wins than any other team in the league entering Sunday. And despite a spirited rally after digging themselves a big hole during a disastrous second quarter, Boston simply couldn't make the play to seal the victory.
Now this five-game West Coast trip gets a bit more daunting. Boston, which opened with a rout of the Lakers on Friday, heads back to Los Angeles to play the Clippers on Monday night. The Celtics then travel north to visit the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday.
"We should have won," said Thomas, who scored 35 points against one of his former teams despite navigating rare foul trouble. "But they hit a crazy shot. We turned the ball over at the end and, if you turn the ball over on the road, things like that happen. We have to do a better job of finishing games and we didn’t do that tonight. So that’s why we lost."
Thomas offered praise for Ulis while recalling what he told him in that phone call two years ago.
"Be yourself. Being a little guy, they’re not going to give you anything," Thomas said. "Be yourself and be special. He’s talented. He’s a good basketball player, young basketball player. He’ll have a long career in this league.
"I’ve known what he can do. He’s a really good defender and he runs the team. He did that in college. He didn’t do nothing [Sunday] that he usually doesn’t."
The Celtics were without two starters -- Al Horford (elbow strain) and Avery Bradley (rest) -- but ran out to an early 11-point lead. The Suns roared back and Celtics coach Brad Stevens suggested the second quarter was "as bad as I think I’ve seen us play, and [the Suns] had a lot to do with that."
Boston, which sits second in the Eastern Conference in large part because of the way it has feasted on inferior opponents, missed an opportunity to climb within two games of the Cleveland Cavaliers. After the Washington Wizards rallied for a nail-biting win over the Orlando Magic, Boston is just two games up with 19 remaining on its schedule.
That slate gets a little easier with a home-heavy run after this road trip. But Boston must visit three Western Conference playoff-bound teams to close this trek.
Celtics players pledged not to linger on this loss very long.
"By the time we land in L.A., I'll be done with this game," Crowder said. "Trust me."