BOSTON – Last week’s victory over Houston was undoubtedly a signature win for the Boston Celtics, knocking off the team with the NBA’s third-best record at the time.
As important as that game was for their psyche, it’s hard to imagine Wednesday night’s game against Toronto doesn’t hold a similar place in terms of its potential impact and implications for both the short and long-term.
Boston (30-18) comes in with a half-game lead over the Raptors (30-19) for the second-best record in the East.
These are the two teams most likely to finish second in the East by Feb. 5, which means the second-place coaching staff (unless it’s Cleveland which seems unlikely) will coach the East All-Stars on Feb. 19 in New Orleans.
Cleveland will likely finish with the best record in the East, but their coaching staff isn’t eligible to coach this year because Cavs head coach and ex-Celtics assistant Tyronn Lue coached the East All-Star team last season and NBA rules prohibit coaches from coaching the all-stars in back-to-back years.
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has been hit with a barrage of questions about the All-Star game and potentially coaching in it.
And he consistently tells anyone listening that his focus remains squarely on Boston’s improvement going forward, particularly against the Raptors who have won each of the two regular season matchups.
“I’d like to keep getting better and do our best to play well,” Stevens said. “We’ve played really well at times, the two times we played them, but not well enough to win.”
And while Stevens isn’t getting caught up in the magnitude of Wednesday’s game, his players aren’t the least bit coy about addressing its significance to them.
“It’s important for us,” said Boston’s Avery Bradley. “We’ve lost twice to them already this year. Down the road these games matter for us. If we can take care of the game tomorrow … that’s important for us as far as seeding.”
There’s plenty of time left before that becomes an issue, but Bradley is right in acknowledging how they perform now can have a significant impact on how they play in the postseason and maybe just as significant, who the opponent winds up being.
Last season the Celtics finished with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference but there was just one problem: they were joined by three other teams with an identical record.
Once the tie-breaking dust settled, Boston wound up as a fifth-seed taking on the fourth-seeded Atlanta Hawks who put away the Celtics in six games.
Players vividly remember how disappointing it was to have such a breakout season and, because of a few bad losses late in the season, found themselves beginning their postseason journey on the road.
But this season, they have bigger, grander expectations for themselves and their postseason journey.
And while tonight’s game won’t determine the fate of their season, it’s a big game because of its potential in terms of improving their record but also as players mentioned earlier, potentially help position them better for the postseason.
“It’s a game we need,” said Boston’s Marcus Smart. “Another game that we can have under our belt as a win against a team we dominated for three quarters and they came out and destroyed us in the fourth and won the game. We owe these guys.”