By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) – At the start of April 2015, the Celtics were making a late charge their way towards their first playoff berth of the Brad Stevens era, largely on the back of midseason addition Isaiah Thomas. Two years later, the green find themselves at the top of the Eastern Conference with under two weeks remaining in the regular season.
The rapid progression of the team’s rebuilding effort has impressed people all around the NBA, but it has also changed the mindset of the C’s as they grind towards the end of the regular season. Instead of being one of the hunters, they are now among the hunted in the East.
That reality was firmly on display in the midst of a successful, but largely unspectacular six-game homestand that the Celtics just wrapped up at the TD Garden Friday night. Boston won five of those six contests, but had to fight their way to a few of those wins against lackluster competition, particularly in the past week with tight wins over the Miami Heat on Sunday and the Orlando Magic on Friday night.
The Celtics clawed their way back from lethargic starts and double-digit deficits in both those contests, a trend that Jae Crowder wants to see change in the final days of the regular season.
“I was telling Isaiah, ‘I feel it. I feel teams are really coming at us,'” he said. “That’s part of the work we’ve put in, but we have to step up to the plate and match that. I told him for the past two games we’ve been hit first. We have to get back to hitting first and imposing our will a little bit. I guarantee we won’t go down 10 next game.”
Isaiah Thomas knows that the team can’t come out there any night at this point and expect to coast to a win, particularly when the target is now on their back.
“This time it’s like teams are chasing us,” Thomas explained. “Me and Jae were talking about it, like, Orlando gave us their best shot. Usually we’re the team that’s going after other teams. And it feels like now teams are just, like, ready to play us from the jump. And we have to do a better job of starting games. That’s on us, the starters. But we have to know teams are not going to give slack to us.”
The important thing for the Celtics during the lull is that they’ve still managed to find a way to pull out wins. A 12-7 overall record since the All-Star Break has allowed them to pull ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers (9-11 record since ASB) who have been struggling with poor defense and injuries for several weeks now. While the Celtics have rarely had a full healthy roster most games, they’ve found that they’ve been able to win in a variety of ways and that’s something that should come in handy with the postseason approaching.
“I did tell them, like, ‘You’re going to have nights like this,'” Brad Stevens said after a 118-117 win over Orlando on Friday night. ‘”You’re going to have nights where, man, it feels like it’s tough to get going and the other team is rolling. Like, the other team is doing a lot of great things.’
“I knew going into this game that this was going to be a much different game than the first two times we played them because of how they were playing and who they were playing from a personnel standpoint. And it was good that our guys found a way. Sometimes the biggest challenge is just finding a way on a night when the other team’s going and you’re not. And that’s good. That’s a good thing.”
With a mere six games remaining in the regular season, the Celtics are in control of their own destiny when it comes to playoff seeding. Style points don’t matter in the NBA though and as Brad Stevens tries to balance rest and success down the stretch, his team needs to continue to find its footing so it can hit its stride once the postseason begins, ideally with home court advantage.
“It’s tough man,” Amir Johnson explained. ”It’s definitely hard to win, especially this time of year. A lot of teams are playing freely and I guess the best thing we can do is just focus on us. We had a few games where we haven’t started off well and that was the case tonight. We picked it up late. We’re just trying to put a full game together. I’m glad we got the win but until we put a full game together that’s when we’re playing well.”
They’ll get another chance to put it all together on Sunday afternoon in a nationally televised game against the New York Knicks. With the Cleveland Cavaliers coming to town shortly thereafter next week, there won’t be much margin for error if the C’s want to stay among the East’s elite.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.