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.”