Less than a month ago, the Boston Celtics were 19-19 and barely in the playoff mix. Well, they have since won 13 of 17 and enter the All-Star Break as the 3-seed in the East.
Just how far can the Celtics (32-23) go this year?
“I don’t know. We got to get a lot better,” Boston head coach Brad Stevens said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “The season is far from over, and if you look at the difference between being the 3-seed or the 10-seed or 9 or whatever right now, is nothing. That can change in one week.”
Indeed, only four-and-a-half games separate the Celtics from the 3-seed and missing the playoffs altogether.
“There’s so much that can change and so many things that you can’t control with regard to other teams going on runs,” Stevens said. “You’ve got to get better. You’ve got to really improve. And we can improve on both sides of the ball. That should be our goal. Our goal has got to be continue to get better, to play well, keep playing with the same level of intensity and belief that this group has done a good job establishing. But we don’t think of ourselves by any means as the 3-seed. We think of ourselves as a team that really has to improve.”
Boston’s best player, without question, has been All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas, who leads the team with 21.5 points and 6.6 assists per game. Thomas went off for 36 points and 11 assists in a 139-134 win over the Clippers on Wednesday. He has scored double figures in all but one game this year.
The one game in which he didn’t? He scored eight points – to go with 12 assists and four steals – in a 113-99 win over the Timberwolves in December.
In short, Thomas has brought it every game this season.
“I think that is the great differentiator between All-Stars,” Stevens said. “I think that’s what the great, great players do. They do it every single day, and it’s really difficult to do. There’s a lot of guys that have a special ability on the court and may not be quite as recognizable because it may not be at the top of the stat sheet, but the one thing he can do – and he’s been doing it since he came in the league – is he can get into the paint and he can score the basketball. So it obviously draws a lot of attention. He does it every ingle day. He works really hard on his game. He’s a pleasure to coach because he’s always in the gym. He’s always looking for a gym on the road to shoot in. And if you call him on an off day or he stops by on an off day, he wants to talk basketball or he wants to watch a little bit of film. He’s a basketball junkie. I know we throw that term around pretty loosely, but I think the greatest compliment I can give him is he’s a guy with a chip on his shoulder, but he’s very much a gym rat. And as a result, I think his passion for the game has separated him and allowed him to gain this honor. We’re all extremely pleased for him.”
Stevens, of course, is coaching with a heavy heart the season. Andrew Smith, who helped Butler to back-to-back national-title games in 2010 and 2011, passed away on Jan. 12, following a two-year battle with cancer.
“That obviously was and continues to be very difficult,” said Stevens, who coached at Butler from 2007-13. “He obviously was a tremendous kid, and he was part of a tremendous group of kids. He had a huge impact on all of the people that he played with and all of the people that he came across. As I said in the eulogy, I think the thing that I love most about him or the thing that I will always remember about him is he never complained about his two-year fight with cancer – whether it went from a hopeful diagnosis and then right back to a negative one, or from a little positive to despair. He just kept a great attitude. It was always all about other people. He was always a great teammate, he never complained, he was just an incredible person to be around. He had a huge impact in his 25 years, he had a huge impact on me, he had a huge impact on his teammates, he had a huge impact on his community. I think that’s what we all ultimately strive to do, and not very many of us could have done it as well in his 25 years. He’s at the forefront of our minds and will continue to be. But it’s been a difficult month for the entire Butler family. He certainly had a big impact on all of us.”