Celtics focused on themselves in tight Eastern Conference race

Celtics focused on themselves in tight Eastern Conference race

BOSTON – Between now and the end of the regular season, there will be plenty of attention paid to the NBA standings which are bound to have a large share of fluctuation in the coming days.

Following Boston’s 100-80 thumping of the Chicago Bulls, the Celtics (41-25) now find themselves percentage points behind Washington (41-24) for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.

As much as players want to say that they don’t pay much attention to the standings, it’s damn near impossible to ignore them this time of year.

“It is, it’s hard,” Boston’s Marcus Smart told CSNNE.com. “But we’re playing for something much greater than ourselves right now. We’re in a very good position, in a spot to do that. So, every game right now counts for us.”

Last season, the Celtics finished in a four-way tie for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference.

The way things are shaping up in the East, it’s not that big a stretch for a similar result this year.

That’s why Sunday’s game was so important to the Celtics.

They faced a Chicago team that’s not only struggling – Sunday was their fifth straight loss – but also showing no signs of navigating their way back into the postseason picture rather than on the outside looking in which is their current predicament as the owner of the Eastern Conference’s 10th-best (or sixth-worst) record.

It’s to the point where there are questions, legitimate questions, about whether Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg has lost the players in that locker room, or whether they have quit on him and the Bulls.

“I don’t think so” was Hoiberg’s response when he was asked if Chicago’s veterans quit on the team.

“They’re being positive with the young guys in the huddle, keeping things upbeat,” Hoiberg said. “The vets are staying positive with the guys and that’s pretty much the only way I can judge it right now.”

Bulls star Jimmy Butler added, “We’re not playing any good basketball as a whole. We have to get back to the basics before anything else.”

While the Celtics haven’t struggled nearly as much as the Bulls have this season, they too can relate to keeping things relatively simple and how important that is to winning.

Boston’s defense has been a never-ending escalator this season with stretches in which they appear on the rise, only to be followed by periods of time when they can’t stop a soul.

What made Sunday’s win so special was that it was one of the few times the Celtics as a team seemed to be locked in defensively, evident by Chicago missing its first 12 shots and 18 of 19 to start the game.

It was the kind of defensive effort that affords Boston a chance to regain its perch as the No. 2 team in the East or potentially catch the Cavaliers.

Boston might also be getting a little help from the scheduling gods too.

Of the Celtics’ remaining 15 games, 10 of them are at the TD Garden.

Meanwhile, the Wizards close out the season with 11 of their remaining 17 games on the road.

In the Celtics remaining 16 games, 11 of them are at the TD Garden.

“Our focus has to be on us,” Boston’s Terry Rozier told CSNNE.com. “We just have to keep working to keep getting better, not worry about anything or anyone but us.”

That might work for some, but Isaiah Thomas has never made a secret about paying attention to the NBA standings all season.

So there’s no need for anyone to try and school him on how tight the race has gotten near the top of the Eastern Conference.

Cleveland (43-21) remains the team everyone is chasing in the East where they currently have a 2.5 game lead over both the Wizards and Celtics. Toronto and Atlanta can’t be totally dismissed although they trail the Cavs by six and seven games, respectively.

“With 15, 16 games left we have to play our best basketball because Washington is playing really well right now, Cleveland is not going to play like they have been for the most part so we just got to control our own destiny,” Thomas said. “Control what we can control. That’s why we bring it every night. Luckily, we got home games too. We have to protect home court and go from there.”

Celtics-Thunder preview: Balancing rest and rhythm

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Celtics-Thunder preview: Balancing rest and rhythm

BOSTON – With the NBA playoffs looming, this is a tricky time of year for most of the league’s playoff-bound teams. 

Both players and coaches want to head into the postseason well-rested. 

But they also want to be in a good playing rhythm.

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Injuries have forced the Boston Celtics to sit some players who are likely to be able to play (and well-rested) when the playoffs. 

And tonight’s foe, the Oklahoma City Thunder, are in a similar situation as well. 

“It's something you're walking a tightrope on all the time, where a guy is really rested but you've taken him out of rhythm,” said Thunder head coach Billy Donovan. “The biggest thing is, there's gotta be communication between the players and the medical staff, coaches, of where guys are, what they need.

Donovan added, “I think rest this time of year would help any player, but there's a balance between maybe getting too much rest and maybe getting out of rhythm. The players are always walking that line during the course of the year, because you kind of get into a rhythm of playing every other day, you get into that, and then there's a back to back here or there, and you get three games in four nights, but yeah. You try to best as you can with your players, help them balance that the best they can.”

Thunder guard Russell Westbrook can see how some players might need to strike a balance between getting enough rest late in the season while maintaining a good playing rhythm.  

So, I asked him which is his preference?

“I prefer to play,” he said. “Rhythm and all that (expletive), it’s in your mind.”

For Westbrook, maybe so. 

But it is very real to a number of players in the NBA, among them being his teammate and fellow All-Star Paul George. 

“If you know why you’re in the gym and the work you’re getting, you lock in,” George said. “You prepare, get your work done. And you get off your legs, get off our feet and get your rest. It’s easy to balance the two when you know what exactly you’re doing and you know exactly what you need to do.”

Boston has worked to strike that balance with Kyrie Irving all season.

That’s why the five-time All-Star is averaging 24.4 points per game which is 11th in the league. However, he’s doing it in 32.2 minutes which ranks 55th in the league in minutes played per game. 

Lately, Irving has gotten more time off than he would like as he deals with a sore left knee that has kept him sidelined for the Celtics’ last three games. 

It doesn’t appear to be something that will limit him now.

However, having him sit out games now increases the likelihood that he’ll be ready to roll at or near full strength, when the playoffs arrive. 

Boston is also playing without Jaylen Brown who suffered a concussion when he fell on his back following a dunk at Houston on March 3. He is expected to return at some point between now and the end of the regular season which could be a blessing in disguise for the 6-foot-7 Brown who will be called upon to not only remain Boston’s next-best scoring option to Kyrie Irving, but also defend at a high level. 

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens acknowledged that they have given thought to how to find that happy medium between resting guys while ensuring as best they can, that players will be refreshed for the playoffs. 

“We haven’t been in that situation very often, where we choose to do rest except for that stretch in December when we rested Al (Horford),” Stevens said. “But everything else has kind of happened organically with guys being dinged up or whatever the case may be. I think that’s … we’ll probably be in a situation where we will continue to have those discussions.”


Thunder not taking shorthanded Celtics for granted

Thunder not taking shorthanded Celtics for granted

Oklahoma City All-Star Paul George knows the Boston Celtics team he and his Thunder teammates will face tomorrow night, won’t be at full strength.

But he’s wise enough to know if you focus too much on an opponent’s key losses to their roster, that same team can potentially hand you a loss which is the last thing the Thunder need right now in what’s shaping up to be a tightly contested Western Conference playoff race.

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Currently fourth in the standings, only four games separate teams No. 3-8. Only Houston (56-14) and Golden State (53-17) have secured a postseason berth. 

Which means the Celtics won’t catch Oklahoma City sleeping on them heading into tomorrow night’s game. 

“We are going to address it the same way regardless of who's in there,” George said. “We got to pick these games up. We lost the game on our floor earlier this season.”

But that was early in the season when the Thunder were still trying to figure out how its newly formed core of Russell Westbrook, George and Carmelo Anthony, could mesh.

Oklahoma City has gotten stronger as the season progressed, and are one of the hottest teams around with six straight wins, the most recent being a 132-125 victory at Eastern Conference-leading Toronto. 

Meanwhile, Boston (47-23) has lost its last two games and three of four so from a momentum standpoint, the Thunder have every reason to feel as though they’ll emerge victorious tomorrow night. 

And they also have added motivation from their Nov. 3 matchup with the Celtics in Oklahoma City that ended with a 101-94 win for Boston. 

Westbrook had 19 points and 11 assists in that game but shot 7-for-20 from the field. Carmelo Anthony had 14 points but did so on a woeful 3-for-17 shooting. And then there was George’s 25 points on 9-for-20 shooting to go with 10 rebounds. 

“We have to show who we are,” George said.

Who they are, is a team that’s fighting for home court in at least the first round of the playoffs where they are currently fourth in the West. 

And their success in the last six games has been fueled by strong play at both ends of the floor. 


In that stretch, Oklahoma City is averaging 116.2 points which ranks second in the NBA during that span. Defensively, they are allowing 104.5 points which is the 10th-fewest allowed in the last six games.

“Just making the right plays, offensively and defensively” is how Westbrook described the team’s recent run of success. 

And the Thunder have every intention of keeping it going against a beat-up Celtics squad that they know they can’t take lightly. 

“Again, we are playing really well,” George said. “A step back if we lose no matter who's in or who's out would hurt us.”