BOSTON (CBS) — After Sunday’s 117-78 beatdown against the shorthanded Cleveland Cavaliers, the Celtics are a mere game away from securing one of the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. A victory in one of the team’s closing two contests (or a single loss by the Nets or Pacers) will punch Boston’s postseason ticket, and give most of the youthful Celtics roster something they crave: a taste of NBA basketball at its highest level.
“It’s everything,” Isaiah Thomas said of potentially making the postseason. “In my NBA career I haven’t been to the playoffs so it’s something that I want to experience. I heard it’s fun, it’s exciting and it’s a new season. Once you make the playoffs, everybody’s 0-0 and it’s a new season so I’m excited about it, hopefully we do get it.”
Unlike their TD Garden roommates, the Celtics have taken matters into their own hands in fighting for a postseason spot against more talented teams like Indiana, Miami and Brooklyn down the stretch of the season. Boston has won four straight games now and six of its last seven overall. Since February 3rd, the Celtics are 22-12, giving them the second best record in the Eastern Conference during that stretch.
Despite the fact the team is still under .500 on the season, Boston’s play in the past couple months puts them closer to being an elite team, rather than a playoff pretender in a lackluster Eastern Conference.
Former Celtic Kendrick Perkins was candid in noting how the Cavs were starting to take note of Boston’s recent success after Cleveland dropped back-to-back games to Boston, albeit without LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
“They’ve been playing really well especially the second part of the season after the All-Star Break,” Perkins noted. “They got a lot of guys that are playing with a lot of confidence and they’ve been doing a great job so we knew what to expect, we don’t take them for granted. We know that they are a capable team of beating any team in the league so we don’t take them for granted at all.”
With more than half of Boston’s roster lacking any kind of postseason experience, Brad Stevens is enthused by how the team has responded to a competitive playoff race.
“I like the progress we’ve made,” Stevens acknowledged Sunday. “I don’t want to say we are ahead of schedule, because that would limit us. We’ve made good progress, and I’ve talked about that throughout the last few weeks. I feel like we’ve progressed in a number of areas and today was a good example of how we came out and played.”
The second-year head coach still would not admit he is content with how the franchise stands in year two of its rebuild.
“I don’t ever look at it that way. I always want more and there’s always things we can do better. We are not at .500. Progress has not been made, but it is not where any of us want to be.”
A competitive Stevens is always pushing for bigger gains, as any good coach should. The rest of the Celtics locker room though will rightfully enjoy the moment if the team can secure a playoff spot in the final three days of the regular season.
“It would be an amazing feeling, especially for me in the league for my first year,” rookie Marcus Smart said. “It would be my first year in the playoffs so it would be the ultimate…for me.”
“It feels great. We’ve been trying to get in [the playoffs] for a long time,” third-year center Tyler Zeller said. “We didn’t even know we had a chance back in the beginning of January and it says a lot about the group we have just coming out every night and competing and trying to put ourselves in the best possible position.”
With ESPN’s playoffs odds currently pegging the Celtics with a 98.3 percent chance of making the postseason, this group couldn’t have put itself in a better position. Now, it’s just a matter of time before they will be able to celebrate the impressive achievement.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.