With winning comes confidence. With confidence late in the season comes expectation. And these Celtics are talking and acting like a team that expects to make a run to the Eastern Conference playoffs with 16 games left in their season.
Avery Bradley is one of only three players left from the last Celtics team to make the playoffs just two seasons ago. He, Brandon Bass and Shav Randolph were all on the 2013 team that lost in six games to the Knicks.
When the Celtics were 20-33 this season and headed for another seemingly dead end to the season, could he picture his teammates making an improbable run to the postseason?
“For sure, I saw that we were improving every single game and I knew we would have a chance if we set our mind to it and started [believing] in our [potential] and that’s what we were doing. We never thought we didn’t have a chance to make the playoffs. Now we’re right there.”
Indeed, after Monday’s 108-89 blowout of the hapless Sixers, the Celtics are definitely in the mix. While technically ninth and on the outside looking in due to their 18-21 record in the East, they are tied with the Pacers and Heat for seventh in the East with a 30-36 record.
Monday, the Celtics came in focused, even in shootaround, determined not to let a game against the 15-51 Sixers stand in their way of their first five-game win streak under Brad Stevens. They outscored Philly 38-18 in the first quarter and it wasn’t a game after that.
“It’s hard, especially when you come in at halftime up by 20 and your coach might say, ‘let’s go out there and continue to play hard,’ you get a little nervous,” Bradley said. “You start thinking once you get back out there on the floor and that’s one thing we didn’t do. Even though they were scoring we continued to execute our plays on both ends of the floor and it helped us continue to have a 20 point lead.”
When the Celtics, who shot 67 percent in the first quarter, looked inside, there was Tyler Zeller leading the way. He found his comfort zone and poured in a career-high 26 points.
“I don’t know, I mean the shots fell down,” Zeller said. “Jump shot felt really good and then they kept leaving me open so I just kept shooting it. Once again my teammates do a great job of getting me the ball on time and it makes it a lot easier.”
Road games against teams like Oklahoma City and San Antonio can be intimidating for young teams in transition. But that’s not the way these Celtics are looking at Wednesday and Friday. It’s a chance to show how much fun they’re having chasing an improbable playoff spot.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Zeller said. “The whole year we’ve been changing, I think Danny’s 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. We do a great job of playing hard and playing together.”
Brad Stevens knows the potential of his team. He’s just not talking much about it. And, according to the Celtics coach, neither are his players.
With Monday’s 108-89 dispatch of the lowly 76ers, the Celtics had posted their first five-game win streak since the Doc Rivers era. They are 30-36, heading into a two-trip across the heartland, beginning with a game against the red-hot Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday and ending with a game against the defending champion Spurs in San Antonio Friday night.
They are tied with Miami and Indiana for seventh in the East but technically would not make the cut right now because of their 18-21 record against the East. Indiana would be seventh by virtue of its 22-18 mark while Miami is eighth with a conference record of 20-20.
With all the newfound excitement abound, Stevens was asked if he’s hearing the team talking about the playoff race
“I don’t know. I haven’t heard them talk about it once,” Stevens insisted. “I’m dead serious. I mean, we’ve talked about it, we’ve seen the standings, like you see it but I don’t hear it. I have not hear them say whoever Miami’s playing today, or who’s Charlotte playing today? They haven’t talked about it around me; maybe they are, I don’t know.
“But I just want to play good basketball and I think our guys just want to play good basketball, and I think as a result you have a lot more fun when you spray the ball around the way we’re spraying it around and when you’re competing together and pulling for one another and five guys playing together on a string defensively. And we’re still not as good as we need to be, even with ‘ I think our team that’s out there right now without Isaiah can play better. And you know, we’re going to need to play better in the next two games to have a chance to win.”
Since falling to 20-33 after a 118-111 overtime loss to the Lakers on Feb. 22, the Celtics have won 10 of 13.
“Obviously, we’re judged on wins and losses, but I don’t really know about the total number or how many games out of how many games ‘ I just think, I knew we were on the right track,” Stevens said. “Even when we were losing earlier in the year I felt like we had made a lot of progress tactically and technically on both sides of the ball; it was just a matter of getting guys, getting us over the hump. And we found a group that’s really connected and playing well and we’re fortunate that they’ve continued to play well with guys out.”
What’s perhaps most remarkable about what the Celtics are doing is change all around them. There were the flurry of trades, the new faces and the injuries to the likes of Jared Sullinger, Avery Bradley and now Isaiah Thomas. Bradley has returned and was a force Monday with 20 points and 10 rebounds.
“I mean, four straight games without Isaiah now, and three straight before without Avery and it’s not easy to play without basically your two leading scorers, not even including Sullinger in that. So it’s been good, and the next man stepped up. We’re going on a tough road trip; that’s really all I’m thinking about right now.”
What’s been the key to the progress and consistency?
“I think it’s the continuity of the guys that have been here the whole time,” Stevens explained. “They’ve really helped and really helped the way in a lot of ways. And then I just think our additions have been good: good solid team guys that will compete, that are our there helping each other and supporting one another and so that’s been a positive.”
Two weeks ago, the Celtics led the same Sixers team by 26 and let them cut it to three in the fourth quarter before pulling away. Such was not the case Monday night. The Sixers cut it to 16 early in the third quarter but never got closer than that the rest of the way.
“I think the biggest thing is when you’re up 23 is being able to answer their punches quickly, and we did that,” Stevens said. “You know, I don’t think it ever got below 16 and I was monitoring that pretty closely, and we answered pretty consistently in the second half when they did make a basket or two. And they can put a lot of pressure with their athleticism on your defense when they start playing really free like that, especially with Ish Smith pushing the ball.
“So as a coach you’re never comfortable, and certainly it’s 20 points at halftime’s like ‘ all you’re wanting to do is the clock to run twice as fast. But our guys responded well and I think we grew from ‘ you think about the last time we played Philadelphia, we were up 26 in the first half and then it was a three-point game in the fourth quarter. So we talked about are we any better? Let’s find out. Maybe we are a little bit better. That’s obviously the goal as you move forward through the season.”
The NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year as a member of the 1985-86 Celtics that finished 67-15 during the regular season — and 41-1 at home in the Boston Garden — on their way to winning 15-of-18 playoff games and the franchise’s 16th NBA title, Bill Walton can wish you a St. Patrick’s Day far better than I can.
“Go Green. Go Guinness. I’m popping one right now. Ten million pints poured every day around this great globe of ours — the globe, the most perfect orb, just like the basketball. The basketball by itself does nothing, but when you make it an extension of your mind the way that [Rajon] Rondo does, the way that Danny Ainge did and DJ [Dennis Johnson] and Larry [Bird] and Kevin [McHale] and Chief [Robert Parish] and Jerry [Sichting] and Rick [Carlisle] and Scotty [Wedman] and all the guys did — but when you’re able to make an extension of your mind, of what it is you’re doing in life, whether it’s drinking a Guinness responsibly, whether you’re bouncing that magic basketball for the Celtic Green, you can make a difference, and that’s what we’re calling everybody to do on St. Patrick’s Day, the start of the college tournament, the most perfect harmonic convergence ever. Be bold, stand tall, quit your job and chase your dreams. …
“I only drink Guinness, the holy water falling from the sky, delivering spiritual guidance. We’re blessed. We’re so blessed. We’re on record pace, and we’re having the time of our life. …
“When this morning started, and it started more than 24 hours ago, the call to action was to take the day off. Who wants to lead a watered down life? C’mon. Let’s get up and be bold. Forget just taking the day off, just quit your job. Make your dream your job, and that’s what I was able to do. My parents ask me to this very day, ‘So, Billy, did you ever get a job?’ I’m closer than ever to being able to say yes. It’s so special. The remarkable thing about Guinness in our world is that in the mother country, Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is a national holiday. In Canada, St. Patrick’s Day is a national holiday. Somewhere, we got lost along the path, along the golden road to unlimited devotion. …
“When you go over to Ireland, and you go to Dublin, and you go to the Guinness thing, they have the Hall of Brilliance, and I’m in there already. I’ve had a lot of honors in my world, and none more important than that one. …
“Assume responsibility. That’s what Guinness is all about. Live in a world of exploration, curiosity, experimentation that leads to a culture of generosity, but do it responsibly. If you’re looking around, blaming other people, if you’re not willing to stand tall and be bold, if you’re not willing to quit your job and chase your dreams, then what are you doing on the Boston Celtics. Let’s go. What are the two sets of three from John Wooden? Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses, and don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal. That covers a lot of ground. …
“The young people, the children, they don’t care that you have red hair and a big nose and a goofy, nerdy looking face and you stutter all the time and you’re a Deadhead and you’re drinking Guinness every minute. They’re going to care that you’re there, and when you care about them, they will care about you. Through practice and through a lifetime of experimentation, maybe you have a chance to play in the game of life one more time — that opportunity that Red [Auerbach] and Larry and Celtics Nation gave me. …
“It’s St. Patrick’s Day. Let’s go. Start the party early. Pop one early. Get that pint going.”
The hottest team in the NBA? Well, that might just be the Boston Celtics.
The C’s destroyed the lowly 76ers, 108-89 on Monday night, which means as of the final buzzer, Boston (30-36) sits in a tie for the seven-seed in the East. Yes, the Celtics would now be in the playoffs if they were to start tomorrow.
Tyler Zeller posted a game-high 26 points in an incredibly efficient 28 minutes in which he shot 11-for-15. Avery Bradley also scored 20 for the Celtics who had all five starters finish in double digits as well as Jae Crowder and Gigi Datome off the bench. Boston product Nerlens Noel was the high man for Philly with 18 points.
Stevens now has his first five-game winning streak as a head coach in the NBA — and an impressive one despite capping it off against Philly. Maybe even more impressive? The C’s have now come out on top in 14 of their last 20. No matter how you spin it, this stretch has proved that Stevens can flat out coach. He just may get a team that has undergone several identity changes this season to sneak into the playoffs, so imagine the possibilities when Danny Ainge provides Stevens with the roster that we all expect one day.
HOME COOKING EARLY
The Celtics came out and took this one right from the jump, building a 20-point lead by the end of the first quarter. Boston shot an insane 66.7 percent from the field (16-for-24 shooting) in the period on its way to grabbing a 38-18 lead. In the process, Avery Bradley and Tyler Zeller scored 10 points a piece in the quarter on a combine 8-for-9 shooting. Seven Celtics scored and five Celtics combine for total 10 assists by the time the quarter came to a close.
CELTICS ARE HAVING FUN
The C’s aren’t just winning games, they are having a blast doing so. Just watch the Celtics’ bench during a game and it’s easy to see the infectious energy. More players were out and about with a smile on their face during pre-game media access and it’s undoubtably because the team is winning. 12 Celtics saw action in this game — everyone who was dressed played aside form Gerald Wallace — while 10 of them saw at least 13 minutes of action. Seven Celtics scored in double figures including all five starters. Stevens has his crew buying into real team basketball.
AVERY BRADLEY GAVE HIS MOST ROUNDED GAME
What has made the C’s so good of late is that they don’t have an individual star. Isaiah Thomas has been fantastic, but teamwork has sparked this win streak. However, if you had to pick one spark plug from Monday night it would be Bradley. AB finished with 20 points, 10 boards, six helpers and two steals in 35 minutes of action — just the second double-double of his career.
76ERS ARE BRUTAL
Yes, Sam Hinkie has a plan. But we’re not going to know if it has worked for another five years, so for right now we get to watch this awful 76ers team compete. I’ll give Hinkie the benefit of the doubt, it’s too early to say his plan has failed. At the same time, those who credit Hinkie’s genius need to check themselves, because Philly is yet to prove anything. Nerlens Noel looks like he could be a decent player, but we have no clue what Joel Embiid or Dario Saric are and we have no clue who the next lottery gambles will be come this summer or how they will develop. All we know for sure is that the 76ers as they stand before us are a complete dumpster fire.
A Celtics coach is the focus of a college program’s search to fill its vacant position, and it’s not who you might have expected.
George Mason University is eyeing C’s assistant Jay Larranaga as a potential replacement for recently fired Patriots coach Paul Hewitt, according to Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Jay’s father Jim Larranaga led George Mason to the 2006 Final Four during his 13 seasons at the helm of the Virginia-based school before accepting his current position as head coach of the University of Miami in 2011.
One of two holdovers from Doc Rivers‘ coaching staff (Jamie Young is the other), Larranaga deserves partial credit as Brad Stevens‘ top assistant for the C’s playoff push in the absence of Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger and most recently Isaiah Thomas. Prior to joining the Celtics‘ staff in 2012, Larranaga enjoyed success as the head coach of the NBA D-League’s Erie BayHawks and an assistant under Mike Fratello on the Ukraine National Team.
Larranaga was a candidate for the C’s head coaching position before Stevens’ hiring in 2013 and twice interviewed for the open 76ers job before Philadelphia hired Brett Brown that same summer.
For only the second time in the Brad Stevens era — and the first time since Nov. 6-11, 2013 — the Celtics have won four straight games, defeating the Pacers 93-89 on Saturday night.
Four Celtics scored in double figures, led by Tyler Zeller (18 points, 7 rebounds), and Boston (29-36) pulled within half a game of the Charlotte Hornets for the Eastern Conference’s eighth playoff seed. The C’s now trail Indiana (30-35) by just one game for the seventh spot.
Brandon Bass, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder all added 16 points apiece, as the C’s knocked off a Pacers team that had won seven straight entering Saturday night’s game. The Celtics next face the struggling Philadelphia 76ers with a chance to capture their first five-game winning streak under Stevens.