WALTHAM — Playoffs?
As wild as it sounds, the Celtics, less-than-proud owners of the fourth-worst record in the NBA, still have postseason-in-the-sky dreams, even during a campaign when most of their fans have accepted that management has its eyes set on a lottery pick.
“The East schedule isn’t that crazy, so a couple of games where we can string some wins together, you never know,” point guard Rajon Rondo said after practice Tuesday.
While the development of young players and the collection of assets to help speed along the rebuilding process are more realistic goals, the Celtics are also well aware that, even in the midst of one of the worst seasons in franchise history, reaching the playoffs isn’t as outlandish a possibility as it might seem.
“Anything is possible in the Eastern Conference,” said forward Gerald Wallace.
Yes, in such a horrifically bad conference, no team is ever quite out of it, no matter how hard they try. Miami and Indiana are secure atop the league, but it’s basically a mess from there, with no other team above .600 and nine of the conference’s 16 teams below .500 heading into Tuesday’s action.
So, for all their struggles, such as losing 16 of their last 19 games, the Celtics, as of Tuesday, were five games back of the conference’s eighth and final playoff spot.
“It’s not like the Western Conference where if you lose two, three games in a row, you’re pretty much out of it,” Wallace said. “We can get hot, win five or six games and it can turn things around in the Eastern Conference.”
The 16-33 Celtics have a somewhat relaxed schedule in February, with just 10 more games — and four of them against teams with winning records.
The Celtics will play one of their more winnable games Wednesday against the 15-34 76ers in Philadelphia.
Coach Brad Stevens recently said it was “pretty ridiculous” that his team was still mathematically in the playoff hunt, despite its record.
“It’s a pretty unique year and everybody realizes that,” he said.
After practice Tuesday, Stevens, whose focus rarely extends beyond the next play in any game, again touched on the subject of playoffs, but noted he hasn’t referenced the postseason much with his players.
“Obviously, you want to be in the playoffs; obviously, you want to win the championship,” he said. “Everybody in the league wants to win the championship. The most important thing for me right now, and where we are, is to get better today and play better tomorrow and then let the chips fall where they may.”
Decision is due
Wednesday’s game could mark Chris Johnson’s last with the Celtics.
The guard’s second 10-day contract is set to expire at midnight Thursday, meaning the team must decide whether to sign him for the remainder of the season or let him go.
“Hopefully we can sign him for the rest of the year,” Rondo said. “He’s shooting the ball, shooting it well. He’s being very professional. Always on time. And he’s producing in the game.”
Johnson, who has averaged 8.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.4 assists over 24.1 minutes per game in seven appearances, has certainly held up his end of the deal, playing so well that Stevens once said Johnson, a former NBA Development League player, was their best player.
But the ultimate decision might simply come down whether the Celtics can afford to keep Johnson.
The Celtics have 13 players, meaning they have two open roster spots, but the team is also just under the $71.75 million luxury tax line and team officials have stated that it will absolutely not be a tax-paying team this season.
That’s not to say that signing Johnson, who certainly wouldn’t cost them much, would push the Celtics over that line.
But the Celtics would prefer to have some financial flexibility as well as a couple open roster spots this month as they head into the Feb. 20 trade deadline.
“We have not talked about it in finality or final details,” Stevens said.
“But I do know it’ll be a decision of can we afford to do it from a cap management and all that stuff standpoint, but I don’t really understand the exact details of that.
“If we decide not to re-sign him, it won’t be because of anything that would be basketball related from the standpoint of his performance. I think every one of us would love to have him in the program for all that he’s meant at this point and time, just in the last 20 days. He’s been fantastic.”
Johnson said he understands his situation.
“All you can do is control what you can control, you know, take it a day at a time, try to get better, put yourself in the best situation for guys to decide whether to keep you or not and go from there,” Johnson said.
Staying the course
Rondo, who is trying to regain his form after missing nearly a year following a knee injury, said he’s OK with his current minutes restriction, which is at about 30 minutes per game. “I like where I’m at minutes-wise, don’t want to force anything,” he said. “I don’t need to play 40 minutes.” . . . Wallace missed practice late last week after having a death in the family, but rejoined the team Sunday, although he didn’t play against Orlando. “You go through a hard week, you just want to get away from it for a while,” he said. “So I think basketball is my opportunity to just get away and settle myself down.” . . . Rondo said he and Avery Bradley, a Tacoma, Wash., native, bet on the Seahawks in Sunday’s Super Bowl while several teammates apparently bet on the Broncos. The Seahawks won in a 43-8 rout. “We went in our locker room and talked a lot of trash to pretty much everybody in the locker room that bet against us,” Rondo said. “You can call it bragging. More collecting. I need to collect.”