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Boston Celtics Are Ready for Challenging Battle with Cleveland Cavaliers

Brian Robb@CelticsHubFeatured ColumnistApril 15, 2015

USA Today

BOSTON — When the Boston Celtics acquired Isaiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns at the trade deadline, the dynamic point guard did not have lofty expectations about the situation he was walking into.

“I thought [Boston] was one of the worst teams in the NBA,” Thomas admitted before Tuesday’s 95-93 win against the Toronto Raptors.

A mere two months later, Thomas and a litany of other midseason additions have helped turn around the Celtics’ season, propelling the rebuilding squad into the Eastern Conference playoffs as the No. 7 seed.

Jae Crowder was one of those new acquisitions, and his game-winning jumper against the Raptors on Tuesday gave Boston its fifth straight win and sealed a first-round date against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Our guys will be excited to play,” head coach Brad Stevens said of the impending postseason matchup. “Hey, to have a chance to compete against the very best in the league is a great opportunity. It’s a big mountain, but it is a great opportunity.”

Understandably, most people around the league aren’t giving the Celtics a chance to climb that mountain and give the Eastern Conference favorites a run for their money. 

If the Celtics continue their stellar play from the past couple of months, however, they could be a tough out for LeBron and Co. in the first round.

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

“We have played well at the last part of the season here,” Jonas Jerebko told Bleacher Report. “I think we’ve played some great basketball. We have shown we can beat every team in the NBA, so whoever we play should be a little worried and not take us lightly.”

Jerebko isn’t underselling Boston’s two-month surge, either. Since Feb. 2, the Celtics have been the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, posting an impressive 23-12 record over that stretch.

Most of the attention has been focused on Boston’s pace-and-space offense that has excelled since shooters like Thomas and Jerebko have come into the fold.

Thomas is averaging a team-best 19 points per game since arriving in Boston, and his scoring and passing ability (5.4 assists per game) has spaced the floor and breathed life into the offense. Meanwhile, Jerebko’s sharpshooting from three-point range (39.3 percent) has given Stevens another big who can stretch the floor with Kelly Olynyk.

While the exciting Celtics offense has received most of the headlines, Boston has made major gains on the defensive end over the past two months as well.

In fact, the team has a top-eight mark in defensive efficiency during the past 35 games, allowing just 100.5 points per 100 possessions according to NBA.com. Boston's improvement puts it in the company of elite defenses such as the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies in the second half of the season.

That kind of consistency on the defensive end has helped the Celtics stay competitive in most games since the All-Star break, even when the team’s offense isn’t clicking. 

Steven Senne/Associated Press

“If you’re a defensive team, you give yourself a chance,” Thomas said. “If you play hard and play together, you give yourself a better chance. [Brad] tries to teach us that every day.”

An explosive Cavs offense featuring James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love will push the Celtics defense to its limit, but Cleveland seems to realize it isn't poised to walk over Stevens' club. Cavs center Kendrick Perkins was very complimentary of his former team on Sunday in Boston.

“They got a lot of guys that are playing with a lot of confidence, and they’ve been doing a great job so we knew what to expect; we don’t take them for granted. We know that they are a capable team of beating any team in the league, so we don’t take them for granted at all,” Perkins admitted.

The chemistry this Celtics roster has built with each other in just a couple short months is apparent when the players try to explain just how they’ve meshed together so well in challenging circumstances.

Steven Senne/Associated Press

“Guys just like playing with each other,” Thomas explained. “I can’t really pinpoint what the exact thing is about it. There have been a lot of people on the Celtics this year, a lot of different teammates for these guys. This group just likes playing for each other. You see it each and every night. Guys want other guys to succeed. No one cares about the points and stats, it’s all about winning.”

Rookie Marcus Smart will be embracing that team-first mentality against Cleveland, knowing the squad will be able to take advantage of the fact it won’t be dealing with any expectations heading into the series. 

“We’re going in as the underdogs,” Smart stated. “We can go play freely. You have seen it before at all levels at basketball. The underdog is going out there and plays freely, [which can] lead to a [surprising] turn of events.”

The Celtics have done nothing but surprise the NBA with their performance in the last couple of months, but it will take a superhuman effort to keep the team’s run going past Cleveland. Crowder is ready for the fight, though. 

“I’m ready to go to war with these guys; I’m ready to go to war,” he said.

The battle between the two teams begins this weekend.

Brian Robb covers the Celtics for Bleacher Report. 

All statistical information is provided by NBA.com/stats unless otherwise indicated. 

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