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PREVIEW: Boston Celtics look to turn back surging Phoenix Suns

Feb 5, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Boston Celtics forward Tristan Thompson (13) is defended by LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) in the first quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Celtics continue their march through a Western Conference gauntlet when they visit the Phoenix Suns on Super Bowl Sunday.

The game will be the Celtics’ sixth in a row against a Western playoff hopeful, including fourth straight on a five-game trip. The Utah Jazz, who entered Saturday with the league’s best record at 18-5, await the Celtics on Tuesday.

Boston has gone 2-3 in the run, winning by four points against Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers, interspersed with losses to San Antonio by four, the Los Angeles Lakers by one and the Sacramento Kings by five.

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The Celtics made their Western swing without defensive whiz Marcus Smart (calf), and coach Brad Stevens has tried different starting lineups in an effort to fill the void.

Tristan Thompson initially was inserted in a taller lineup, and he has retained his spot all three games of the trip, averaging 13.7 points and 8.3 rebounds.

Jeff Teague moved in to replace a resting Kemba Walker in Sacramento and shot just 1-for-6, scoring seven points in the loss.

Walker was reinserted for Friday’s win over the Clippers, flanked by Grant Williams, who spelled Jaylen Brown (knee).

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Daniel Theis has joined Jayson Tatum in the starting lineup all three games, but he is a question mark for the Phoenix game with a sore right knee. He left Friday’s game in Los Angeles after just nine minutes and did not return.

“This stretch is insane,” Stevens observed after the hard-fought win over the Clippers, “so we have to be smart with all of these guys.”

Tatum has endured 38 or more minutes in each of Boston’s last four games. He’s averaged 29.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in those contests.

While the Celtics’ starting lineup has changed on a game-by-game basis of late, so has their bench. The club welcomed back rookie Payton Pritchard on Friday after he had missed six straight with a sprained right MCL.

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Stevens admitted he had to give Pritchard some unusual advice with Smart and Brown out of the lineup.

“I had to tell him to shoot,” the coach claimed. “So the very next time he touched the ball, he jacked one right in front of me and he made it. So he’s a good listener.”

Pritchard finished 2-for-3 on 3-pointers and 3-for-4 overall, contributing eight points in the narrow win.

The Celtics haven’t seen the Suns in more than a year. The club split games last season, each winning on the other’s home court.

Phoenix began a seven-game homestand with a 109-92 victory over Detroit on Friday. The win was the Suns’ fourth in their last five games.

With Dario Saric having sprained his ankle at the end of a COVID-related absence and with Jae Crowder battling a foot injury, Suns coach Monty Williams plucked Frank Kaminsky from the bench for a rare start against Detroit.

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The coach liked what he saw from the veteran, who had 15 points and five rebounds.

“I think that’s the way we’re going to do this going forward,” Williams said of pairing Kaminsky with fellow big man Deandre Ayton. “We’re seeing all these teams who are big and they’re playing big power forwards. Points in the paint and production in the paint has been something that we’ve wanted to nullify as it relates to playing against teams like that.”

Devin Booker led the way against the Pistons with 23 points. He has averaged 24.0 on 49-percent shooting since missing four straight games with strained left hamstring.

–Field Level Media