It’s been exactly one month since the Celtics finalized the Jeff Green trade — completing a series of deals that also sent Rajon Rondo packing — and yet they’re playing their best basketball of the season. After losing three straight immediately following their leading scorer’s departure, the C’s have won seven of their last 12 games to enter the All-Star break trailing the Hornets and Heat by only one loss for the Eastern Conference’s final two postseason spots.
Despite a 20-31 record, the Celtics are in the playoff conversation. Seriously.
“It’s always been a conversation, since Day 1,” said Marcus Thornton, whose 14 points helped ground the Hawks on Wednesday night. “I believe we can make it, and I believe we can make noise, too, so it’s on us to make that happen.”
Except, some of the current C’s weren’t here when the season began — namely rotation players Jae Crowder and Tayshaun Prince — and not all of them are expected to be around when the team reconvenes for the second half in Sacramento some 24 hours after the league’s Feb. 19 trade deadline.
So, Jared Sullinger can decry all he wants, “It’s the All-Star break; that’s the last thing on our mind,” but the harsh reality is this team that appears to be just hitting its stride could look completely different in a week.
“I’m going to use that time to take off and kind of forget about basketball a little bit,” Thornton said when asked about an eight-day vacation leading up to the trade deadline, “but wherever I’m at, I’m ready to go.”
Thornton’s $8.6 million expiring contract and scoring prowess (team-high 19.6 points per 36 minutes and 41.9 percent 3-point shooting) make him attractive trade bait for a team looking to bolster its playoff roster this spring and clear cap space over the summer. Same goes for Prince and Brandon Bass, a pair of veterans who respectively carry $7.7 million and $6.9 million price tags while still proving productive on the court.
“My teammates are great,” added Thornton, 27, who’s already on the record saying he’d like to stay in Boston. “We’re young. I’m kinda like old here on this team, which I don’t like to say, so none of y’all better not say it, either. But it’s great. The way we interact with each other is great. It’s one of the funnest teams I’ve been on.”
It’s a chemistry Brad Stevens has somehow concocted despite constant uncertainty throughout his two-year tenure. And while the Celtics coach would like to see his current team stick together for the final two months, he also knows Danny Ainge & Co. in the front office aren’t all that concerned about the here and now.
“Certainly, I’d love for us to have as little movement as possible,” said Stevens, “but I understand those guys will do their jobs, and they’ll take everything and look at it and figure out how best to move forward with our team, especially with 30-some-odd games left. I think that we have built momentum and have a good group of young guys that are — like I talked about before with Atlanta — figuring out how to be stars in their roles, and I think that’s the key. And that’s why I think we’ve been able to have a little bit of success here and there.”
Ainge has turned his coach into a real-life Sisyphus, and if another set of trades sends the Celtics careening down the hill again, Stevens will begin anew his mission to carry Boston back up that NBA mountain.
“We’ll figure it out depending on what happens in the next week,” added Stevens. “I really like these guys. They’re a good group of guys. They work hard, and you see a lot of growth in a lot of them.”