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Preview: Suns vs. Celtics — what to watch, TV, start time, betting lines and keys to the game

It’s Devin Booker vs. Jayson Tatum, the league’s top two offenses and top records in each Conference

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Phoenix Suns Vs. Boston Celtics at TD Garden Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

What: Boston Celtics (20-5, best in East) at Phoenix Suns (16-8, best in West)

When: Tuesday, 8:00 PM AZ Time

Where: Footprint Center, Phoenix, AZ

Watch: ESPN

Listen: 98.7 FM

Betting Line: Celtics are favored by 1 point, per DraftKings, with an over/under of 230


When was the last time the Phoenix Suns (16-8) were an underdog at home? They’ve led the league in wins for the past two years and have the best home record over that span as well. But that’s how good the Boston Celtics (20-5) have been this year, and the Suns find themselves the home underdog on Wednesday night.

The Celtics come to Phoenix on a two-game road winning streak (9-3 overall on the road), sporting the best offense in league history and leading the league with 20 wins in their first 25 games. They’ve got two unstoppable forces and red-hot outside shooters for days.

The Suns come home licking their wounds after a 1-1 road trip to Texas where they blasted the lowly Spurs but then got humbled by the Mavericks once again. Now they face a daunting schedule that includes games against the league’s hottest teams, many of them on the road.

So you might say tonight’s game, at home against the Celtics is a ‘we really could use this one’ game. It’s only December, so NO games are must-win. But this one surely would be nice.

The Suns are hoping Chris Paul’s heel feels good enough to play (he’s set to return, barring any setback today) and that the same is true for Torrey Craig’s nethers. Those are both gametime decisions, or at least decisions to be made after a good walk-through and trainer session this morning.

Probable Starting Lineups

Injured/Out

Suns: Chris Paul (heel) and Torrey Craig (groin) are QUESTIONABLE, meaning game-time-decision; Cameron Johnson (knee), Duane Washington Jr. (hip) and Jae Crowder (spirit) remain OUT

Celtics: Al Horford (COVID) is OUT; Robert Williams (knee) and Danilo Gallinari (knee) remain OUT


Celtics Update

  • Offense: 120.0 points per 100 possessions (1st, and best in league history both in pure number and relative to this year’s league average)
  • Defense: 111.5 (15th)
  • Net: +8.5 (1st)

Class of the league, so far this year. But what’s crazy about this is that, while their personnel is largely the same (yet another new coach, third in three seasons), they are winning differently than they did last year.

Last year, the Celtics won with stifling defense. This year, it’s with overwhelming offense. In fact, their offense is so much better than league average that they are on pace to set a record on that end. Per John Schuhmann of NBA.com a week ago:

After tearing up the Miami Heat’s zone on [last] Wednesday, the Celtics have scored an amazing 121.5 points per 100 possessions through 22 games (including an absurd 137.9 over their last three). That’s 4.2 more than the ’20-21 Nets, 5.0 more than the second-ranked Suns, and 9.5 more than the league average (112.1). So while this is the most efficient season (league-wide) in NBA history, the Celtics also have the best offense (in regard to differential vs. the league average) in these 27 years of play-by-play data, with their +9.5 mark topping that of the 2003-04 Dallas Mavericks.

They’ve come back to earth a bit over the last couple of games, especially against the Nets on Monday where they scored less than a point per possession but still won anyway. Their current lead over the second-place Suns is still +2.7 points per 100 possessions now, and “only” 8.5 points more than the league average. That drops them to only the second-greatest best offense (relative to league average) in the last 27 years.

Of course, the two main drivers on the Celtics are MVP candidate Jayson Tatum and All-Star Jaylen Brown. They have developed into perfect complementary players in that they can each start, or re-start, a possession out on the perimeter and make something good happen with a three, a middy or a drive to the hoop for points, free throws or both.

But what’s REALLY got the Celtics creating eye-popping offense is the three-point shooting around those two. Among those who’ve played at least 15 games and taken 3+ per game, the Celtics have 4 of the top 12 in three-point accuracy, and 5 of the top 20, and none of those are named Tatum or Brown.

At the other end, the Celtics have dropped off a bit defensively. They are ranked only 15th on defense this year after ranking first last year. Some of that may have to do simply with always having a lead, and knowing their offense will run over the other team sooner or later.

You might attribute that defensive drop to the absence of Robert Williams, but ‘Time Lord’ missed a lot of time last year too and the Celtics still led the league in D without him. Williams has not played this year after hobbling through last year’s playoffs on that bum knee and still trying to recover.

Interesting note: Most of these players — the roster has had tons of continuity — are on their third head coach in the last three seasons. Brad Stevens bumped up to the front office, Ime Udoka left in off-court shame after taking them the Finals, and now Joe Mazzulla steps in. The last two had never been a head coach before taking the reins. They also lost one of their best assistants in Will Hardy, who’s doing a great job with the Utah Jazz this year. Yet the team just keeps getting better and better anyway.


Suns Update

  • Offense: 117.3 (2nd)
  • Defense: 110.2 (6th)
  • Net: +7.1 (2nd)

Yesterday, I shared that the Suns are only 6-6 against .500-or-better teams (20-9 overall) without Chris Paul the past two seasons, including 3-3 this season. All three of those losses this season were on the road, and two were by one point (Miami, Utah). Clearly, when you’re missing your All-Star point guard the final clutch possessions on the road can get a little messy.

Paul might actually be back on Wednesday night (barring a setback), but either way they will have an uphill battle to beat a really good team. Don’t expect Paul in midseason form, so the shot will likely still be off. But it would be nice to see the offense flow a bit better, wouldn’t it? Monty Williams said it’s easier with Paul because the offense just runs, without needing as much effort to get the results.

But let’s not take away from the Payne-full results. After taking a few games to adjust to Payne as the starter with Duane Washington/Landry Shamet/Devin Booker as the backup playmaker, not to mention Torrey Craig as the power forward, the Suns have righted the ship. They’ve won 7 of their last 9 games. During that 9-game run, they are 2nd in the NBA in offense, 8th in defense and 3rd in point differential (+9.1). That 8th-rank on D is only 1 point per 300 possessions (i.e. one point every three games) from ranking 5th. Not bad, Cam Payne. Not bad at all.

But now the schedule gets really rough. Guess who are 1st and 2nd in net differential over the last 9 games, just ahead of the Suns? yep, you guessed it: the Pelicans (+11.6) and Celtics (+9.9), the opponents in the Suns next three games.

Whether Paul is in or out, the Suns are going to need the best version of Cam Payne. He’s been very good as a starter (15.1 points, 7.3 assists per game) and especially good at home (43% 3P, 56% TS), so the Suns will need that Cam to show up. He’s going to have a tough time if he has to go against DPOY Marcus Smart though, against whom he’s made only 25% of his threes the last two years.

They also need the best of Devin Booker. After a scorching week, Booker only scored 11 points in Dallas on Monday night and, to make matters worse, he tweaked his ankle in the third quarter. He returned for a bit and moved okay before Monty sat the starters all fourth quarter, and he was not even listed on the injury report on Tuesday. He and Mikal (slightly hyperextended knee last Friday) might be worse for wear, but they’re not gonna let the opposition know it.


Prediction

This sure feels like a loss, no matter how I play it out. If Paul and Craig are out, the Suns have a top-end talent problem. If Paul and Craig are back (which is likely), the Suns will have an adjustment period that probably results in some clunky play. Not to mention, but now I’m mentioning it so it’s mentioned, Booker could be hobbled by that turned ankle and Mikal Bridges might be hobbled by that slightly hyperextended knee.

But then again, these are the resilient Suns. Let’s see how they come out after getting embarrassed again by the Mavericks.

My guess: Celtics by 10.

The Suns will tip off against the Celtics at 8:00 PM AZ Time. All nationally televised NBA games can be watched on Sling TV.

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