Following his team’s dominant 125-97 win over the playoff-bound Utah Jazz, Celtics coach Ime Udoka reiterated that the goal is to avoid the play-in tournament and stay healthy and rested for the postseason.
Udoka needs to readjust those goals, because the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference is attainable, as the Celtics continue their stirring turnaround with their best basketball in perhaps a decade.
Not only did they waste the Jazz on Wednesday at TD Garden, they showed enough maturity to keep focus in the first home game after a long West Coast road trip. They punched Utah first by making their first 10 shots and then spent the rest of the evening staving off minor rallies and wowing the crowd with ball movement, blocked shots, and accurate shooting.
It was an exhibition game in the fourth quarter with Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams cheering on their teammates from the end of the bench, getting well-deserved rest.
The Celtics have been the best team in the NBA for the past several weeks, and yet there are still eight regular season games left and the entire postseason. They are enjoying themselves, beating up on capable opponents and staying locked in defensively.
So the expectations have now risen. The Celtics should see themselves as not just a contender in the Eastern Conference but one of the favorites. They have proven worthy of such a title with a 28-7 run over the past three months, and they are soaring at the most opportune time: when the Eastern Conference is attainable as their competitors are all dealing with drama.
In Miami, while the Celtics were blasting the Jazz, the top-seeded Heat were losing to the shorthanded Golden State Warriors with coach Erik Spoelstra and veteran Udonis Haslem each exchanging terse words with star Jimmy Butler. The Philadelphia 76ers started off streaking after the acquisition of James Harden but have seriously plateaued, having traded three key role players to get him and coping with a scaled-down supporting cast.
The Milwaukee Bucks are the biggest threat out of the group, but they have a three-game road trip against Memphis, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn, and the Celtics have an April 7 showdown at Fiserv Forum that could swing the East. All those lofty goals set in the training camp, that looked impossible when they were 18-21, are still attainable with 17 days left in the season.
“It’s crazy, right?” forward Jaylen Brown said. “All of this was very primed for us. I knew the energy was about to shift and I’m happy we’re here now. It’s crazy to even know that we’re a game and a half (back), as many games as we blew in the first half of the season. It would have been nice to have won some of those games, maybe we’d be in first right now.”
The key for the Celtics is to avoid basking in the glory of regular season success and do everything required to prepare themselves for when the games really count. The only team that appears appreciably better than the Celtics is the Phoenix Suns. The Celtics have reached a point where the Heat, Bucks, Sixers, and even the Nets are their equals, their peers. They are no longer upstarts or dark horses.
The prime responsibility for Udoka is to keep his team focused. The Celtics now have three days off and will be the darling of the ever-changing NBA conversation. Are they title contenders? Are they the best team in the NBA? Should they be favorites in the East?
Let someone else answer those questions. The Celtics have to concentrate on getting even better than they are now.
“You just understand what we’re working for,” guard Marcus Smart said. “We’re going to go in on these three days off and we’re gonna watch the film and it’s not going to be always the good things. It’s going to be some things we probably don’t want to look at. Doing it that way helps you as players and [coaches] stay down to Earth, stay humble and stay locked in.
“We’re playing great basketball right now, but we’ve got to continue to play great basketball.”
The difficult part is the comfort of indulging in your own accomplishments, watching TV or scrolling social media to see what everybody is saying, how every NBA pundit just knew you were going to make this run. They have to block out the compliments just as much as the criticism and focus on the larger goal.
“In the social media age everybody probably hears and sees everything,” Udoka said. “I only see it if somebody tells me. Our guys, we have a mature group for a young group of guys and veteran leaders that understand where we were, where we are now and where we want to get to. It’s about how we can keep pushing and improving.
“I think we all feel there’s another level we can take it to, being more stingy on defense, everybody getting on board offensively.”
That next level will be the most difficult to attain. It’s a level the Celtics haven’t reached in 14 years. But this team has to challenge itself to get there, and be consumed with the process. If so, the Celtics will exceed all expectations and this season could be an extraordinary one.