You hear a lot of talk these days about how the Celtics have the cushiest of cushy schedules to close out the season, a schedule that’s chock full of teams that have spent the bulk of this season getting their heads beaten in.
Of the Celtics’ 13 remaining games, nine are against teams at .500 or worse.
Still, for folks like me who have watched a lot of these bad basketball teams play this season, which includes way more Sixers basketball than any human should consume, there’s a narrative surrounding most of them that’s undeniable.
The way they are playing now is better – a lot better in the case of the Philadelphia 76ers – than their pitiful record might suggest.
While the Celtics will be favored to beat Philadelphia this afternoon (Vegas has the C’s as a five-point choice), would anyone outside of New England be surprised if the Sixers came away with the victory?
And despite Philly’s struggles, they play Boston about as tough as any team in the league.
The Celtics has won each of their three games this season against the Sixers, but only by a total of 13 points which speaks to how the games between these two has been closer than Boston certainly would want.
And unlike previous matchups, in which the Sixers seemed to be more about developing players than doing what was necessary to win, it’s clear that Philadelphia isn’t satisfied with just competing with teams anymore.
Dare we say it, the Sixers are (gulp)...trying to win games?
Philadelphia is coming off a 116-74 win over Dallas, one of the franchise’s most lopsided wins in nearly a decade.
And they’ve taken teams that - on paper - they are overwhelmingly overmatched against, down to the wire, evident by a 106-104 loss at Golden State earlier this month.
“You've got to give this team a lot of credit," Golden State’s Draymond Green said recently. "They're going to be really, really, really good. I mean, they're missing [Joel] Embiid and Ben Simmons and they're really on their way."
Embiid, whose season was shut down after just 31 games (he missed each of the two previous seasons entirely due to injuries), was a dominant force when healthy. He led the Sixers with 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots per game.
Ben Simmons, taken with the No. 1 overall pick by the Sixers last June, has not played in a single game this season due to injuries but, he too, is a player with promise.
Their absences have helped fellow Sixers rookie Dario Saric emerge not only as a key cog in Philadelphia’s growth, but also one of the front-runners for the NBA’s rookie of the year award, along with Embiid.
Still, as much improvement as we’ve seen in Philadelphia, the Celtics have shown they too are making progress towards being more than just one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference.
With Isaiah Thomas (knee) out, his absence has allowed others an opportunity to thrive.
Jae Crowder is coming off his seventh double-double of the season in Boston’s 98-95 win at Brooklyn on Friday. He had season-highs in scoring (24 points) and rebounding (12) as the Celtics (44-25) won their third straight with their East-leading 21st road victory of the season.
That means for the first time under fourth-year coach Brad Stevens, the Celtics will have a winning record away from the TD Garden.
When asked by CSN’s Abby Chin about the difference playing without Thomas, Crowder responded, “More shot opportunities; for real, seriously.”
This season, Crowder averages 9.8 field goal attempts per game. In the five games Boston has played without Thomas, his field goal attempts rises to 10.6.
More telling is how Crowder, a 13.5 points per game scorer this season, increases his scoring output to 16.2 points per game sans Thomas, while shooting 50.9 percent from the field.
With Thomas out, Crowder and several other Celtics will surely be looked upon to step their game up.
Despite Philly’s record, their play of late and the confidence they have with wins in two of their past three games, makes today’s matchup a game that Boston should win, but it will not be easy.