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.
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.”