Celtics gear up for biggest game of Stevens Era

Celtics gear up for biggest game of Stevens Era

BOSTON -- Brad Stevens loves to remind his players and the media for that matter, the importance of staying in the moment when it comes to teams on the Boston Celtics’ schedule. 

He’s right. 

That’s a great way to approach games. 

But tonight’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers is different, a game that isn’t just another one of 82 regular-season games. 

“This game is big for us,” said Avery Bradley. “We understand that. And we know it could be a good game for us going into the playoffs. It’s going to be a playoff atmosphere. We’re playing a team that’s going to be a contender."

No game has been more important to this franchise in the three-plus seasons Stevens has been at the helm, than tonight’s matchup with the Cavs. 

Forget about being a team on the rise.

For the first time since Stevens has been the Celtics’ head coach, they go into a game this late in the season in a tie for the best record in the East. 

And with these two in a tie record-wise with Cleveland having won two of their first three meetings, tonight’s game could very well determine whether the Celtics finish the regular season with the top seed in the East and with it, home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. 

“We don’t talk in terms of big games; we talk in terms of next games,” Stevens said. “And so, they’re excited after a couple days off to get back on the floor. Obviously, anytime you’re playing against the defending champion who has been to the (NBA) Finals couple years in a row and have some of the level of players they have, you know you’re going to have to play your best to have a chance to win.” 

At no point since LeBron James’ return to Cleveland, have the Cavs been as vulnerable to being knocked off their perch atop the East as they are now. 

Watching them play of late, it’s clear that winning has been tougher – a lot tougher – for them. 

And beyond that, they just seem out of sync on many nights, more so than we saw last season when they brought home the franchise’s first NBA title. 

“Every team goes through it at some point in the season,” said Isaiah Thomas. “They’re going through it now. They know what it takes to win. It’s obvious they’re going through whatever it is they’re going through. That’s their problem. We can’t worry too much about what they’re going through.”

While Boston has a different set of concerns, they are just as significant and potentially impactful on tonight’s game. 

Jae Crowder has a swollen left elbow injury and is questionable to play tonight. 

“I came into [Sunday's game in New York] with a lump on my elbow from falling the previous game,” Crowder said. “And I don’t know if that contributed to this injury. But my elbow was a little tender going into the New York game. The swelling, I don’t know where it came from. It just happened. I looked down after a time-out and saw my elbow was pretty swollen, had to come out the game. I watched film twice and I still don’t know where the swelling came from. I’m just glad the MRI came back no structural damage; some tissue swelling and some blood inside, that’s about it.”

Crowder knows tonight’s game is a big deal, but he’s leaning on the team’s approach in the past to guide him in how to handle what will be a game that’ll have a distinct playoff flavor to it. 

“This is another game for us to win and protect our home court,” Crowder said. “Of course it’s a lot at stake with standings and what not … we’re focused on these guys.”

Isaiah Thomas echoed similar sentiments about how the players are handling this matchup between the top two teams in the East. 

“No. Not for me,” said Thomas when asked if the game felt any different being the No. 1 seed. “It’s just another game; I think we have to treat it like that. Being number one in the standings, I don’t feel different, treat it like another game.”

But it’s not just another game. 

That’s why the fans will pack the TD Garden the way they would a playoff matchup. 

That’s why this game will draw the kind of attention you seldom see this time of year, with the top two teams separated by mere percentage points in the NBA standings. 

This game has the potential for the Celtics to gain something that they have little of at this point despite their record and position in the East – respect. 

“Guys on this team, Isaiah, myself, Jae, we all feel like underdogs anyway,” said Bradley. “We feel like we’ve all been overlooked. No one ever [gives] us our credit. As a team, that’s what we expected going into this year. We just used that as motivation and every single game this year we got better and better and better, and every guy that got an opportunity got better.”

Despite the success, Bradley sees lots of room for the Celtics to be even better. 

“Now we’re almost there,” he said. “We’re playing the right way. We’re still kind of a young team, but with the leadership we have, we’re making great strides to be where we want to be.”

Blakely: Stevens has this coaching in March stuff down

Blakely: Stevens has this coaching in March stuff down

Sometimes we forget that a big part of why Brad Stevens is in Boston is because of what he has done as a coach this time of year.

He led a pair of Butler teams to deep postseason runs before coming up short in a pair of national title games.

Well, he’s embarking on a different kind of March Madness in leading the Celtics to a string of improbable wins, the latest being a 105-100 victory at Portland on Friday night.

It was the kind of victory that when you start to roll out the reasons why Stevens should be this season’s Coach of the Year winner, folks will use the win at Portland as an example.

The Blazers are not only one of the better teams at home, but they came in having won 13 of 14 games with the lone loss coming to Houston, which has the best record in the NBA.

But what made the victory so unexpected was the cut-and-paste lineup Stevens has employed because of a long rash of injuries.

Kyrie Irving missed his fifth consecutive game and is expected to be lost for another three to six weeks after having a procedure to on Saturday to help alleviate some of the soreness in his left knee.

Jaylen Brown has missed several games with a concussion, but he has progressed to where he's now questionable for the game in Sacramento on Sunday night. 

Boston was also without Marcus Smart (right thumb) who won’t be back until sometime in the playoffs.

And that doesn’t factor in Gordon Hayward (dislocated left ankle) or Daniel Theis (torn meniscus, left knee), both out for the season.

It’s easy to chalk up Stevens’ success to great Xs and O’s work.

But he’s doing more than that.

He’s inspiring a level of confidence in players that generated results exceeding all expectations; that is, expectations outside of their locker room.

Even when this team struggled with no clear signs of hope on the horizon, they didn’t blink.

Rather than use their less-than-ideal state as a justification for poor play, they funneled that energy and focus into becoming a better team - not better players, but a better team.

Because frankly, that is what we’ve seen from this group all season. Of course, you have your star in Irving, but this team has been a get-it-done-or-else squad all year that doesn’t get too locked into the success or struggles of any one teammate.

And that has allowed Boston to withstand the kind of injuries to key players that would have crippled many other teams.

But with the lack of bodies, there has been a lack of respect for how good this team really is.

Stevens has tapped into that and used it to help focus this team on playing great and most important, giving themselves a chance to win regardless of the opponent, regardless of how dire a situation may be.

And that has created the kind of March Madness Celtics fans are absolutely lovin’ right now.



Optimism that Kyrie will be back for playoffs

Optimism that Kyrie will be back for playoffs

Kyrie Irving underwent a left knee procedure on Saturday that will keep the five-time All-Star guard out for at least the start of the playoffs.

The Celtics indicated that Irving will be out for 3-6 weeks.

According to the Celtics, the procedure was to remove a tension wire in his left knee. The wire was originally placed there as part of the surgical repair of the fractured patella injury Irving suffered in the 2015 NBA Finals when he played for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Removing the wire is expected to lessen the irritation it was causing in Irving’s left patellar tendon.

The fractured patella injury from in 2015 has fully healed and, according to the Celtics, Irving’s knee has been found to be “completely structurally sound.”

The timetable for Irving's return is roughly the same as that of Celtics guard Marcus Smart, who last week had surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb. 

Irving, who turned 26 on Friday, finishes his first regular season with Boston appearing in 60 games while averaging 24.4 points per game on a career-best 49.1 percent shooting from the field.