As Celtics climb, getting coach Brad Stevens to All-Star game adds motivation
WALTHAM, Mass. -- The Boston Celtics head into Tuesday's game against the Toronto Raptors with a chance to shuffle into a tie for the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference. There are obvious benefits to being the second-best team in the East, and it's a spot the Celtics should strive to hold by mid-April. But there's a benefit to being there in early February, too, as it would mean that Brad Stevens would serve as coach of the Eastern Conference All-Stars.
All-Star coaches are typically determined by the team with the best record in each conference shortly before the midseason exhibition. Cleveland, with a 4 1/2-game cushion on the rest of the East, is likely to lock up the East's best record this month, but coach Ty Lue is not eligible to coach this year after helming the East last season.
That means the chore will fall to the second-best team in the East. Just two weeks ago, it seemed unlikely that it might fall to Stevens. The Celtics were five games behind Toronto on Dec. 15, but Boston has won 10 of its past 12 to reach Toronto's tailgate. And getting Stevens to New Orleans is just a little extra motivation for Boston players to keep their foot on the accelerator.
"[Stevens] probably really doesn't care about things like that, but that would be big," said Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas, the catalyst for Boston's recent surge, who just happened to return from a groin injury at the start of this stretch. "Not just for him, but for this organization and the direction we’re going in. Hopefully we can make that happen for him."
Thomas, the most likely of Boston's players to earn a trip to New Orleans, admitted there's an obvious benefit to having his coach along for the trip.
"I'd play more in that All-Star game, for sure," Thomas said with a smile. "That would be big. That would be huge."
It's fair to wonder if Stevens might actually go the other way and put Thomas in Bubble Wrap in hopes of keeping his star guard upright heading into the second half of the season. But the Celtics have more pressing issues at the moment, including a four-game stretch in which they play four of the East's top eight teams (Raptors, Wizards, Hawks and Hornets).
The Celtics traveled to Toronto without Thomas' typical backcourt partner, Avery Bradley, who strained his Achilles in Friday's victory against Philadelphia and is out until Wednesday's visit from Washington at the earliest. Even with Marcus Smart expected to start again in Bradley's place, losing one of its top defensive guards will hurt Boston against a Toronto team that has thrived against the Celtics in large part because of the play of All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
"[The Raptors are] really good. You want to go in fully healthy, but that's part of it, and that's part of an NBA season," said Stevens. "You go in and you play the guys that are available, and our guys are all capable of being really good. And we're going to have to play really good collectively to have a chance to win. That's a good team."
Stevens has routinely downplayed measuring-stick chatter this season, and did the same for Tuesday's game. But he did admit that Toronto is obvious competition for a preferred spot in the East playoff seedings.
"At the end of the year, you want to be in the best position you possibly can," said Stevens. "I think maybe it's a little early with 45 games left. But ultimately, you know, they've had a heck of a start. This has been a really tough schedule that they’re in the midst of, when you consider they went out West, came home for one game, flew back to the midwest and then came back for a back-to-back, that's a tough thing to do. We've lived that. It's a really good team, and they've certainly played great against us."
The Celtics are 0-3 against the Cavaliers and Raptors this season, but 16-3 against the rest of the East. For a Boston team that had a propensity to lose to bad teams last season (most notably two bad defeats to a Brooklyn team whose draft pick they were receiving), the fact that Boston has taken care of lesser competition is a positive.
Now these Celtics want to show they are capable of beating the teams at the top of the conference.
"[Tuesday's game is] a big one. We're right here where we want to be," said Jae Crowder. "We had a good last week. We're just looking to have a good week this week -- and it starts with Toronto."
Much of the chatter at Celtics practice on Monday centered on Boston getting back to being an elite defensive team. Boston tied for the fourth best defensive rating (100.9) in the NBA last season, and the addition of Al Horford left many wondering if Boston would emerge as one of the best defenses in the league.
Thirty-seven games into the 2016-17 season, Boston ranks 18th in defensive rating at 105.6. The Celtics were dead last in defensive rating through seven games, then started playing better. But even after winning 10 of its past 12, Boston is still in the bottom half of the league in defensive rating over that span.
"We haven’t been very good," said Stevens. "There’s a lot of things that go with that. We've been good at times in games but not as good as we need to be ultimately. ... We’re going to have to be a lot better than [recent games] if we want to be a good team."
A Celtics team that was woefully inconsistent offensively for much of last season owns an offensive rating of 112.3 over its past 12 games (fourth best in the league in that span). Boston's season rating of 108.3 is seventh best overall.
Stevens was adamant that better offense shouldn't come at the expense of maintaining defensive intensity. But Thomas thinks it's an encouraging sign that Boston's best basketball is ahead.
"We feel confident just because we’re not playing the best basketball and we’re still winning," said Thomas. "We know there’s a lot of room for improvement. We know we can get there, especially with most of the guys being healthy. We have a lot of confidence. Like Coach keeps saying: We’re winning but we’re not playing at the level we need to be. That says a lot about the team that we have."