By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The hype machine is in full swing for the Boston Celtics.
And for good reason, too. They bounced back from a disappointing loss to the Sacrament Kings last week and won their last three games on a four-game road trip. They’ve won 10 of their last 11 overall, and sit just two games back from the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. They actually have a legit chance of passing the Cavs and claiming that No. 1 seed in the East — maybe just for a few days, maybe for good.
With their recent surge, it’s certainly something C’s players see as a possibility.
“We’re always looking forward, and that’s the team ahead of us,” Isaiah Thomas said after dropping 29 points against the Mavericks in a 111-98 win on Monday. “So my sights are definitely on Cleveland. I know everybody else probably ain’t too worried about them. But we’re in reach. We’ve just got to keep it going.”
Some of their opposition is even thinking ahead to June.
“They’ve got a legitimate chance to get to the Finals with that team out of the East,” Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle (who won a title with the Celtics in 1986 during his playing days) said Monday night.
With the Cavs dealing with injuries to Kevin Love, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, the top spot in the East is certainly attainable if the Celtics continue to play the way they’ve been playing. It nothing else, it will force Cleveland to keep their foot on the gas rather than take the occasional break.
The NBA Finals? That’s a bit premature. While the defense has improved, it’s still far from where the Celtics want to be. Though they may be able to pass the Cavs in the standings, but beating them in a best-of-seven series is a whole different story. Not to mention they’d have to win two rounds to get to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals, which is no small task for a team that’s been ousted in the first round the past two seasons.
Don’t take this as a bucket of ice water on a hot team. There are reasons to be optimistic and it goes deeper than winning 10 of 11, a streak that could be more of the regular season norm for the team than just a hot stretch. They’ve played much better on the defensive end of the floor after a rocky start to the season, and appear to be back to being that pesky club that no one really wants to play. A perfect example is Mavs point guard Deron Williams deciding in the second quarter Monday night that he’d rather watch the second half of the game from the locker room than deal with Marcus Smart’s frustrating defense the rest of the evening, getting the boot for arguing with an official after just 13 minutes on the floor.
Dallas shot just 5-for-21 in the fourth quarter, helping the C’s go on a 12-2 run to seal the win. Efforts like that, even without guard Avery Bradley for 18 of their last 19 games, give you reason to believe the Celtics are on the top of that second tier in the NBA, and could rise to the top of the Eastern Conference.
While Thomas is their offensive leader, the Celtics have had some great balance on that side of the floor too. IT was one of six Celtics to score in double figures on Monday, which they’ve done in each of their last three games. Al Horford’s contributions go largely unnoticed in the box score, but he’s done wonders in spacing the floor, which gives Thomas a clearer path to the basket.
Boston has won 23 games since mid-December, and they’re back to playing like the team we all fell in love with during the regular season last season. But as we saw last year, it’s when the Celtics start to puff their chests a little too much that they fall back to earth in a big way. Five of the next six games (with the All-Star break sandwiched in) are against Eastern Conference playoff teams, a stretch that will provide a much clearer picture on what the team is made of.
They learned an important lesson last postseason when the Hawks beat them in six games in the first round, and this time around, they have a veteran in Horford to help Brad Stevens make sure they don’t get too high on themselves. They haven’t let the injury bug derail their season, and after a lot of talk heading into the season, they’ve been good at keeping things in perspective.
The top spot in the Eastern Conference is in their sights. It would be quite the accomplishment and a giant step in the right direction for the franchise. But there’s a long road ahead, and the success or failure of this season will all come down to winning in the postseason.
With the way they’re playing right now, a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals should be the bar for success. They just can’t let the hype machine get to their heads between now and then.