Despite losing 114-91 to Cleveland on April 5, the Boston Celtics (52-29) hold a one-game lead over the Cavs (51-30) and are one win away from clinching home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference.
Still, that 23-point loss was tough for the Celtics to swallow.
“Well, you’re going to have to play your A-game to have a chance to win against those guys,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “We did not play well. I thought they played great. They had a lot to do with us not playing well. We had some to do with our not playing well, but no matter what shakes out over the next couple of days, Cleveland is the one that has been to two straight Finals, they’re the defending champion and they’re the ones that everybody is shooting for until they get knocked off.”
Cleveland, after knocking off Boston, was expected to cruise to the No. 1 seed in the East. Instead, the Cavs have lost three straight games, including two in overtime, and have essentially shut it down for the rest of the regular season.
Isn’t it odd that the Cavs have decided to rest LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and essentially hand home-court advantage to Boston?
“I don’t have any thought on anybody else’s team,” Stevens said. “I think the biggest thing from our standpoint is focusing on hey, where are we with regard to health? Where are we with regard to number of games, number of minutes – all those types of things – and we feel good about where we stand. Our guys have done a good job of being consistent throughout the regular season. We’ve been more hampered by injury and illness than any team I’ve ever coached, and I guess the small silver lining is we’ve already missed our fair share of games each. We’ve really wanted to play with all of our bodies here to get a rhythm together, to play well, and hopefully we can play well tomorrow night.”
The Celtics host Milwaukee (42-39) on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET. The Bucks beat the Celtics, 103-100, in Boston on March 29.
“The last time we played Milwaukee here, they beat us, and so they’re a tough matchup for us,” Stevens said. “Our focus is on them until we find out our playoff opponent. . . . My plan is always I’m focused on us playing well and how do we win the next game? That’s what our focus will be tomorrow night.”
As for resting players in general, Stevens sees both sides of it.
“I think it’s a great discussion to have,” he said. “I think it’ll be helped by adding 10 more days to the season next year. . . . That stretch that Golden State had ending in San Antonio was as tough of a stretch as I saw all year in the NBA with regard to travel, changing time zones, flipping back and forth from East to West. We were their only home game in that stretch, which is exactly where you want to be scheduled, right? If you’re ever going to play on the road at Golden State, that was the game that you’d want there, and we played really well and they didn’t play as well and we were able to win.”
Indeed, Boston beat the Warriors, 99-86, in Oakland on March 8. That game, for Golden State, was sandwiched between road games against the Bulls, Knicks, Hawks, Timberwolves and Spurs.
“There are games that you look at when you get your schedule at the start of the year and you say, ‘Man, that is going to be tough based on how much we’ve had prior to that,’” Stevens said. “So I understand each organization and respect each organization’s decision to do what’s best for them. Not all schedules are created equal, and not all spans like they were playing – six in nine days all over the place – are created equal. . . . The best I’ve heard it phrased is when Pop (Gregg Popovich) says, ‘If guys are healthy in the playoffs and guys are healthy for two or three more years, that’s a win.’ I think the extended amount of time in the season and as we continue to grow in our understanding of the science and the effect on the body and everything else, hopefully it’ll just be better and better for all people involved.”
In any event, Isaiah Thomas has been the Celtics’ best player. The 28-year-old is averaging 29.1 points, 5.9 assists and 2.7 rebounds in 75 games. If Boston wins the East, then Thomas, one would think, would be an MVP frontrunner. Unfortunately for Thomas, much of the MVP chatter has centered on Russell Westbrook and James Harden, even though their teams would finish sixth and third, respectively, in the West.
Stevens would love for Thomas to win the award, but ultimately, he’s focused on winning an NBA championship.
“If Russell Westbrook gets the MVP, nobody’s going to argue that,” Stevens said. “I think that ultimately anybody that is even in consideration or that has even been mentioned in those breaths has had an incredible year in a really tough league.”
It’ll be interesting to see what happens if the Celtics do, indeed, match up with the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals – and if the Cavs, say, win the series in seven.
Might Boston regret not making a deal at the deadline and truly going for it?
“Well, I think you’re always going for it with the guys that are in the building,” Stevens said. “That’s my job. That’s my focus. That’s what I do all year is focus on the 15 guys that are in here. There are 16 teams that’ll be left starting this weekend, and each one of them believes – rightfully so – that if they play really well, then they can win any given game, and if you string enough games together, then good things will happen. I don’t really live in hindsight. I also, at the same time, have a great deal of respect and know how well-thought-out everything is by our front office, our ownership, our management. My job is to help the guys that are in this room get better and better to put our best foot forward. We’re in a unique situation in that we have a tremendous group of people that have worked really hard to position themselves well throughout the inaugural season – not only this year, but really in the last two years. At the same time, we’ve got some great future assets headed our way. There’s a lot of positive around here. I’m all about the glass is more than half-full. We’re looking forward to attacking this thing.”