BOSTON — The Eastern Conference playoff race is heating up, and the Boston Celtics made it clear yet again on Friday night that they are in it for the long haul.
Evan Turner's season-high 30 points helped carry the Celtics to their third straight win, 95-88, over the Orlando Magic at the TD Garden on Friday. The victory pulled the hosts within one game of the Charlotte Hornets for the No. 8 spot in the East.
The merits of making the postseason for a rebuilding franchise like Boston have been debated relentlessly in year two of the Brad Stevens era. The overarching question is simple: Is this team better off gaining a higher draft pick in the 2015 NBA draft, or is the team's youthful core better served by experiencing a taste of the postseason action?
Midseason addition Jae Crowder heard the whispers from fans that wanted to see Boston free-fall in the standings as soon as he arrived in town from Dallas, as the Celtics stumbled out to a 12-23 start to the season.
"A lot of people counted us out [after the Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green trades]," Crowder recounted. "What do you call it when you try to get a [higher] draft pick? Tanking? I don't know the meaning of that. I don't even know how to say that. A lot of [people] wanted [us] to do that."
|Eastern Conference Playoff Standings|
|7. Indiana Pacers||30-34||--|
|8. Charlotte Hornets||29-35||1|
|9. Miami Heat||29-36||1.5|
|10. Boston Celtics||28-36||2|
|11. Brooklyn Nets||25-38||4.5|
|12. Detroit Pistons||23-42||7.5|
President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge wasn't necessarily one of those people, but he expressed mixed emotions on the idea of making the playoffs back in late January during an interview with A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com:
I would love to see our team in the playoffs, but I don't want to see us back into the playoffs with a really bad record and not even have a fighting chance. If our team can keep getting better by developing, if we can make some deals at the trade deadline that puts us in position to actually get into the playoffs and have a chance to win a playoff series, I think that would be a lot of fun.
Ainge, to his credit, lived up to his words on trade deadline day. His acquisitions of Isaiah Thomas, Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome have boosted Boston's offensive firepower off the bench and jump-started the Celtics into one of their best stretches of the season.
With other potential playoff teams also surging (Indiana Pacers, Hornets, Miami Heat) around them, the Celtics have caught their stride at the right time to stay in the chase. Boston has won five of its last six and eight of its last 11 overall since the trio joined the active roster on Feb. 20.
Quality wins against the likes of the Memphis Grizzlies, Utah Jazz, New Orleans Pelicans and Miami Heat, as well as a near upset against the Golden State Warriors, make this particular stretch a bit more noteworthy than most. Stevens doesn't just have this revamped group playing better basketball; he's got it holding its own against NBA heavyweights nearly every night since the start of February.
Boston's net rating for the past 11 games places it sixth overall among teams in the East, according to NBA.com/stats, ahead of other East playoff teams such as the Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors.
The added competitiveness that the Celtics have shown lately should put Ainge's mind at ease when he's wondering if it's even worth it for his team to show up for the first round of any postseason series.
|The Final Stretch|
|Team||Record||Remaining Games Home/Away||Remaining vs. .500 Teams|
|7. Indiana Pacers||30-34||9/9||10|
|8. Charlotte Hornets||29-35||8/9||9|
|9. Miami Heat||29-36||8/10||8|
|10. Boston Celtics||28-36||8/10||9|
|11. Brooklyn Nets||25-38||11/8||10|
|12. Detroit Pistons||23-42||8/9||6|
Stevens knows there is plenty of work to be done to stay in the playoff conversation, but he's encouraged by the way his roster is coming together on the path to a potential spot.
"We're chasing everybody else. We're behind. We dug a hole," Stevens explained. "If we can continue to play together and play well, you feel good about it. It doesn't mean every day is going to be perfect or you are always going to get the results you want. We've got a good momentum in that regard right now."
Turner played with a similarly youthful group early in his career with the Philadelphia 76ers and noted how valuable that was.
"Every win is key," Turner said. "All the guys are getting a lot of valuable experience. Having the opportunity to be in this position is great, especially for the young core we have, if we finish off strong. To be able to beat certain teams and grind out certain games [like the Memphis win], that's a testament to everything. Whether we are fortunate enough to make the playoffs or not, I think the way we are learning toughness is key."
The confidence the Celtics have built over the past month-plus has translated into a "Why not us?" attitude—not just when it comes to making the postseason. Boston believes it can make some noise in a round or two of a wide-open Eastern Conference playoff.
"We know that [we can play with anyone]," Crowder declared this week. "If we get into the playoffs, it's a tossup. We have to take it one game at a time. We're not looking that far ahead."
As Stevens attempts to build a foundation for the future, he sees the drive in his revamped players to push the rebuild ahead of schedule.
"They play for the Boston Celtics, so I hope it's something they expect to do. I hope they continue to take pride in playing well. I think they are finding more excitement in playing well, so hopefully we can continue to do that."