BOSTON — After the Boston Celtics finished a very businesslike dispatching of the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday — a 109-100 victory in which the Celtics were their own biggest challenge while committing 14 first-half turnovers — Isaiah Thomas took his turn in front of the cameras and offered a very confident take on the state of the Celtics union.
“Things are clicking for us,” Thomas said. “We’re playing at a level that’s kind of high right now.”
Thomas, who earlier this month admitted to being obsessed with checking the Celtics’ place in the Eastern Conference standings, didn’t mention anything about Boston’s clinching a playoff berth Tuesday or how the Celtics moved within a game of the East-leading Cleveland Cavaliers after they lost in Denver.
Thomas simply repeated numerous times during his five-minute chat with reporters that the Celtics were “locked in” and building toward bigger goals that can be accomplished only in the postseason. Thomas downplayed a suggestion that there is a new swagger about the Celtics, but it sure appeared that the team was carrying itself a bit differently.
“We’re looking for bigger things than [clinching a playoff berth],” Thomas said. “It feels good to clinch, especially 10 or 11 games before the season is over, but we got a bigger goal. We want to advance it in the playoffs. That’s our goal for now, and go from there.”
Thomas didn’t mention anything about a pursuit of Cleveland and the No. 1 seed. He didn’t point out Boston’s rapidly expanding lead over the Raptors and Wizards for the No. 2 spot. But both he and his teammates made a point to note that the Celtics are trying to find the best versions of themselves before the playoffs arrive.
Two seasons ago, it was an accomplishment to be in the playoffs. Last season, the strides the team made were celebrated. Both seasons ended with a first-round playoff exit. On Wednesday, Avery Bradley said the team didn’t even make note of clinching a playoff spot the night before, when the Bulls and Pistons lost while Boston was idle.
“It says a lot about us, that we’re maturing every single day,” Bradley said. “Last week, all we did was look at the standings, but we were losing games. We weren’t focused. So we came together as a group and said we can’t worry about where we are. We’ll worry about that when the time is right, where we want to be in the seedings. Right now, we just have to focus on every game, focus on getting better as a team.”
Here’s where the Celtics are: They are healthy (finally) and have defeated two potential East playoff foes (Wizards, Pacers) to start a six-game homestand. Boston ranks eighth in the league in offensive rating and, despite a cover-your-eyes start to the 2016-17 season, has clawed its way into the top 10 in defensive rating (tied with the Raptors and Pistons for that spot following Wednesday’s game).
When the Celtics have had their preferred starting five — Thomas, Bradley, Jae Crowder, Al Horford and Amir Johnson — they are 23-7, or a sizzling .766 win percentage. That lineup has a net rating of plus-10.3, which is the best mark in the East and fourth-best in the NBA among lineups with at least 350 minutes of floor time. Boston’s starters trail only lineups from Golden State, Houston and the Los Angeles Clippers — or three teams with a combined mark of 149-65 (.696).
On Wednesday, the Celtics got key contributions from their bench, including backup big men Kelly Olynyk (11 points on 5-of-6 shooting, eight rebounds) and Tyler Zeller (six points, three rebounds in 10 minutes). Thomas gushed about the way Olynyk plays when he’s confident in himself and noted, “When [Olynyk is] feeling it, he’s a helluva player to stop.”
Then there’s Zeller, who has lived in a land of DNPs this season and has battled a nagging sinus issue that sidelined him for much of December and early January. He has given the Celtics quality minutes in recent games and appears ready, should matchups dictate that Boston go big (which coach Brad Stevens noted is likely to happen based on potential East playoff foes). As Horford said, “I just have a lot of respect for [Zeller]. Just because it’s been hard knowing that you can be in there contributing, and he just keeps coming in like a professional, doing his work, staying ready.”
Yes, the Celtics have had bad losses in recent weeks. They quite literally kicked away a win in Phoenix and, without Thomas, fell Sunday in Philadelphia.
But take a look at the next two weeks. Things downshift with visits from non-playoff foes Phoenix and Orlando, and there’s a national TV game in New York against the Knicks in early April. A couple of teams jockeying for one of the final playoff berths in the East — Milwaukee and Miami — also come to town.
But if Boston maintains its businesslike approach during this stretch, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be positioned for what could be a No. 1-seed showdown with the Cavaliers when the defending champs visit April 5.
After Wednesday’s games, Boston overtook the Cavaliers as the favorite in FiveThirtyEight’s projections to claim the top spot in the East. The Celtics are up to a 55 percent shot at the No. 1 seed, compared to 45 percent for Cleveland.
That’s a remarkable leap for a team that had a 20 percent chance at the No. 1 seed back on March 1. Boston was at 4 percent when the calendar flipped to 2017, and that number was even lower while the team stumbled out of the gates to start the season.
The Celtics have been at the Cavs’ doorstep before this season, and they quickly faded. They’ve had a propensity to be on the cusp of muscling into the national spotlight, then endure a bad loss or two that sends them back to the pack looking up at teams such as the Cavaliers and Warriors.
But there was an obvious confidence among this team after Wednesday’s game. It’s a measured but unmistakable attitude for a squad seeing what is possible when it is healthy and plays to its potential.
There are still strides to make. Boston has rarely put together a full, 48-minute effort and has a nasty habit of letting could-be blowouts turn into nail-biters.
But things appear to be clicking — at just the right time of the year.