BOSTON — The Celtics have a chance to take a major step towards earning the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs for the first time since the 2007-2008 season when they face off with the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night. The nationally televised showdown will break the tie in the standings (50-27) between the defending champions and the C’s, who are 28-10 this season at the TD Garden.
The stakes couldn’t get much higher for a regular season game in April, yet LeBron James refused to give the tilt much extra credence on Tuesday night after his Cavs defeated the Orlando Magic in Cleveland.
“I don’t know, I’ve played in a lot of big games,” James told reporters in Cleveland, pointing to his six straight NBA Final appearances. “I don’t … I’m the last person to ask about a big game in the regular season. I’m sorry.”
LeBron’s casual approach is understandable for a number of reasons. To start, Cleveland is in one of the most challenging stretches of their season, playing their fifth game in seven nights on Wednesday and the second of a back-to-back. The Cavs are just 1-9 on the road this season in the second half of back-to-backs, so downplaying the contest ahead of time is a smart way for him to ensure that the Celtics don’t get too much confidence if they pull off their second straight victory over the Cavs.
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The flip side for Cleveland though is that they really can’t afford to punt on this game from a team perspective. Even though they have won three straight games, they are still playing sub .500 basketball overall since the All-Star break. March was one of the worst months (record wise) of LeBron’s career, making late-season rest a diminished priority now compared to getting the team on the same page. Cleveland doesn’t necessarily need home-court advantage in the postseason to advance to the NBA Finals, but they need to be playing better basketball that they’ve shown lately.
“I think we need it,” Kevin Love admitted. “It will be good for us, and it’s definitely up there [with other big games], especially timing-wise. It will be a good test for us, and I think it will get us even more prepared, even more locked in, win or lose.”
The Celtics will enter the contest with a significant advantage from a rest standpoint (two days off), but the status of starting small forward Jae Crowder (elbow) remains uncertain as game time approaches. Rather than worrying about that and or the Cavs’ attitude, the Celtics are simply prioritizing pulling off the victory by any means necessary.
“I mean, at this point, I don’t care who plays,” said Isaiah Thomas of the Cavs’ potential plans. “If they don’t play, that’ll be good. If they do, we’ll be there at 8 o’clock to play them. I’m fine with either way they go. You can’t control that decision but, if they do play, it would definitely be a really good game and, if they don’t, we’ve just got to figure out how to get a win anyway.”
No matter what the final standings are in the East, there will still be a shadow of doubt over this Celtics squad entering the playoffs until it wins their first postseason series. The team is already rallying around that mentality though as they enter in home stretch of the regular season and are relishing the chance to shock the NBA world into April and May.
“Guys on this team, Isaiah, myself, Jae, we all feel like underdogs anyway,” Avery Bradley explained. “We feel like we’ve always been overlooked. No one gives us credit and as a team, that’s what we expected going into this year. We knew that a lot of people would count us out, a lot of people would say we would be on the bottom of the pack. [They said], yeah, we added Al [Horford], but we might not get over the hump.
“We just stuck together and used that as motivation. Every single game this year, we got better and better. Every guy that got an opportunity got better and now we’re almost there. We’re playing the right way, we just have to continue to value every single possession. We’re still learning and we’re still kind of a young team, but with the leadership we have, I feel like we’re making great strides to be where we want to be.”
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.