PORTLAND, Ore. — Playoff seedings pale in comparison to playing your best basketball at this time of the season. For weeks, the Celtics have been searching for the best version of themselves, trying to regain the consistency that led them to the NBA’s best record for most of the season.
Including Saturday night’s visit to Salt Lake City to face the Jazz, there are 11 games left in the regular season, and the Celtics are just a few weeks away from what could be a competitive and compelling first-round playoff series. Regardless of where they finish in the Eastern Conference, the road back to the NBA Finals will be arduous.
If Friday night’s win over the Trail Blazers is any indication, the Celtics are getting back to themselves, taking control in the first half and then staving off the fourth-quarter brilliance of Damian Lillard (they found out why they call it “Dame Time”) to hold off Portland, 126-112, at Moda Center.
The win was important because it helped the Celtics as they attempt to catch the Bucks for the No. 1 seed and fight off the 76ers. It also gave them a 3-1 record on their six-game trip as they try to distance themselves from their lackadaisical habits that bit them last Monday against the Rockets.
Even this deep into the season, the Celtics are still trying to develop good habits, and most of those habits involve their mental approach: Taking every opponent seriously, not allowing a poor offensive possession to turn into a poor defensive possession, and not panicking when stars such as Lillard play like stars.
“The game is never going to be perfect,” Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said Friday night. “It’s the NBA. They’re going to make shots, make runs. I tell you guys all the time it’s how you respond. In games that we win, usually we respond. When we lose, it’s the snowball effect and it’s tough to overcome that sometimes.”
No team in the Eastern Conference is invincible. The Bucks have been streaking for the past two months, but they were thumped at home Thursday by the Pacers and their final 12 games are difficult, including meetings against the Celtics, 76ers, and Nuggets, a rematch with the Pacers, two against the Raptors, and a game against the Grizzlies.
But the Celtics cannot be consumed with others. They have to accept their own fate in terms of playoff position. Their mental lapses since the All-Star break may have cost them the No. 1 seed, but they can’t be concerned with that now. They have to focus on winning the rest of their games, playing their best basketball, and their players filling roles and allowing Tatum and Jaylen Brown to take on most of the scoring responsibility.
In Friday night’s win, Tatum and Brown combined for half of the Celtics’ shots. The supporting cast played like a supporting cast. There was a synergy to how the Celtics played, something that hasn’t always been present in recent weeks.
“I just felt like we had that competitive nature again,” coach Joe Mazzulla said of the wins over the Trail Blazers and Timberwolves (Wednesday). “I felt like we had that identity. I felt like we had that kind of pop to us. So it’s important that we keep that edge, that identity.
“I think our compass is there and it looks like we’re playing connected, physical basketball. We have a competitiveness about us that we have to maintain.”
That should be the Celtics’ primary focus in these last few weeks of the regular season. Don’t be consumed with the Bucks or scoreboard watching. Instead, the Celtics need to play with the type of consistent passion and maturity worthy of a championship team. Teams experience lulls in the regular season, and the Celtics slipped at a critical time. But they are also good enough to beat any team in the Eastern Conference in a seven-game series. The key is to remember who you are and what you’re capable of.
“Coach challenged us here to be better as a group,” veteran Al Horford said. “Be more focused and really get back to who we are. The group has responded. We knew [Portland] was an important game for us and we needed to come out here and really set the tone. We did that. I felt like we needed to get kind of brought down and lock in on the things we need to do. This is the time of the year where teams … you can’t wait until that step. You have to play these [kind of] games. We need to continue to play good basketball and get better.”
The Celtics are the same team with the same players who led the NBA most of the season, and they’ll get Robert Williams and Payton Pritchard back in the next week. So the goal for the test of this trip should be to concentrate on fundamentals, play with consistent fortitude, and improve incrementally because the Celtics have yet to play their best basketball, and that’s a good thing.