BOSTON – The schedule says Boston’s opponent tonight is Minnesota, a team that’s currently 10 games below-.500 (28-38) which is the closest they have been to being a .500 club since the end of January.
A cushy win for the Celtics, right?
Nope. Not even close.
The Minnesota Timberwolves may have a horrible record this season, but their play of late has been impressive.
This 28-win squad has taken down Golden State and most recently Washington which has been playing as good or better than any team in the East recently. The Utah Jazz have the fourth-best record in the West and the Timberwolves went into Salt Lake City and smashed them by 27 points earlier this month.
Their recent run of success now has them sniffing a potential playoff spot out West where they currently trail the eighth-seed Denver Nuggets by 3.5 games. If Boston makes the mistake of playing the team’s record and not the team that’s in front of them, it won’t just make for a tougher game.
They’ll get beat … badly.
“What I’ve seen on film is a team that’s playing at a different level than when we played them in November,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens.
This is especially true on defense. Since the all-star break, Minnesota has a defensive rating of 99.9 which ranks second in the NBA only to San Antonio (98.6). To put that in perspective, Minnesota ranked 23rd before the break with a defensive rating of 108.3.
“(Ricky) Rubio is kind of the head of that,” Stevens said. “He’s a tough, tough guy both defensively and in leading a team.”
But it’s not all that surprising that the Timberwolves have evolved into a tough defensive club considering ex-Celtic Tom Thibodeau’s penchant for developing tough teams defensively.
“They’re just getting better and better, figuring out that end of the floor,” Stevens said.
Meanwhile, the Celtics come into tonight’s game having crushed the Chicago Bulls, 100-80, on Sunday, a game in which Boston’s defense opened the game in lockdown mode as Chicago missed its first 12 shots and 18 of 19.
No one expects the Celtics to limit teams to that extent on a night-in, night-out basis. But the effort and attitude to do so needs to be more of a constant going forward regardless of the opponent or their record.
“We have to know what our goal is, what we’re trying to reach at the end,” said Boston’s Isaiah Thomas. “It’s not about who we’re playing, but how we play. If we approach it with respect and the way that we know how to play, we’ll take care of business. If not, we’ll be up and down like we have been.”
Indeed, it has truly been “March Madness” when you consider the highs and lows the Celtics have been through this month.
There was the elation of beating Cleveland only to lose a buzzer-beater at Phoenix four days later, and follow that up with a fourth-quarter meltdown at the Los Angeles Clippers. Putting that disappointment aside, the Celtics beat the Golden State Warriors on their home floor for the second year in a row, but bounce back with a 20-point beat down at the hands of the Denver Nuggets.
“Being consistent. That’s what we have to be,” Thomas said. “If we’re consistent and play like we know how to play, we’ll take care of business with these last 15 games. If we’re not, we’ll be up and down like we’ve been the past couple of games. Everybody is realizing what’s at stake and guys are locking in.”
The Celtics are eager to finish the season with one of the top-two records in the Eastern Conference. They are currently second and trail Cleveland (43-22) by 2.0 games with Washington (41-25) just a half game behind Boston. While most coaches and players say they pay no attention to standings, Thomas readily admits to paying attention to the movement throughout the NBA.
“It’s very important, whether it’s the one or two seed,” Thomas said. “It’s important to be in that position. We have to take control of the things we can control and that’s going out there and being us. But it’s important to get that two seed. That would be good for us.”