BOSTON (CBS) — Back in October it looked as though the Boston Celtics were entering another year in the NBA basement, destined for another high lottery pick.
As the months progressed, the Celtics continued to be a franchise in flux. Danny Ainge pulled off trade after trade, eventually sending Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green, the two biggest name players on the roster, out-of-town, and Brad Stevens was left with an ever-fluctuating roster of young players and other team’s castoffs.
Add in a few key injuries to Boston’s bigs (with Jared Sullinger lost for the year and Kelly Olynyk missing significant time) and that lottery pick seemed all but certain.
But instead of settling into the basement for the second straight year, these Celtics have come together as a group. They are playing some of the best team basketball we’ve seen in Boston over the last four years, and are now flirting with a playoff spot.
Boston has gone 10-5 since the All Star break, earning key victories over Charlotte, Miami and Indiana (all teams ahead who are — or were — ahead of them in the playoff race), with an impressive road win over the New Orleans Pelicans and home victory over the Memphis Grizzlies also in the mix.
Monday night’s 108-89 blowout win over the Philadelphia 76ers at the TD Garden was Boston’s fifth straight win, and the Celtics now stand at 30-36 on the season, tied with Miami and Indiana for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference (they own the tie-breaker with better conference records).
But make no mistake. While a rejuvenated fan base is salivating at the thought of this young and energetic team making it to the postseason, the Celtics are keeping their focus on the short-term.
Playoffs? They’re just focused on winning every night.
“I haven’t heard them talk about it once. I’m dead serious,” Stevens deadpanned following Monday’s win. “You see the standings, but I have not heard them say, ‘Who is Miami playing today?’ or, ‘Who is Charlotte playing today?’ They haven’t talked about it around me. Maybe they are, but I just want to play good basketball and I think our guys just want to play good basketball.”
Guard Avery Bradley, who scored 20 points to go with 10 rebounds and six assists against Philadelphia, agrees with his head coach.
“All we worry about is winning games,” said Bradley. “Even our winning streak, we don’t focus on that. People have been saying it’s our longest since 2013, but we don’t care. Our main focus is winning games.”
Still, even while the roster continued to change throughout the year, Bradley noticed they were coming together under Stevens. And with some actual continuity following the trade deadline, the C’s appear to be hitting their stride at just the right time.
That allowed a little bit of postseason dreaming to enter the shooting guard’s mind.
“I saw that we were improving every single game and I knew we’d have a chance if we set our mind to it,” he said. “We never thought we didn’t have a chance to make the playoffs, and now we’re right there.”
While they don’t have a big-name star to carry the load night-in and night-out, the Celtics are finding someone different each game to do just that. Isaiah Thomas, acquired from Phoenix at the trade deadline, was handling most of the scoring until he went down with a bruised tailbone and right elbow last week. Thomas is expected to miss Boston’s next two games — tough road tilts against the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.
But that just means it will fall on someone else to step up. On Monday night, in addition to Bradley’s stuffed stat line, center Tyler Zeller scored a career-high 26 points. While it was probably a little frustrating learning all those new names throughout the season, it’s led to a very fun brand of basketball for everyone involved. The ball movement has been incredible, with the Celtics now ranking fourth in the NBA with 24.3 assists per game.
“The whole year, we’ve been changing. I think Danny [Ainge] has done a great job putting together the team that we’ve got. We’ve been playing with different players every night and finally have a team where we’ve settled in, playing with the same players every night, and it’s fun to go to battle that way,” said Zeller. “We do a great job of playing hard and playing together.”
Ultimately, it will take all 14 guys on the roster for Boston to continue their quest for the postseason. But in order to get there, the Celtics know they’ll have to take each of their remaining 16 games as playoff games themselves.
“We all understand that we’re fighting from behind. We all understand that we have to go out and play hard every night. We have two very tough games coming up,” said Zeller. “I think our team does a great job taking it one game at a time, knowing that each game is very, very important at this point in time.”