Despite a plethora of close losses, inconsistent performances, and roster upheaval, the Celtics are just 1½ games out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Celtics are one of the beneficiaries of a horrid group of teams in the East and, with more improved play, they have a legitimate chance of grabbing a playoff spot.
Despite the team trading Rajon Rondo to the Mavericks last month and experimenting with rotations over the past several weeks, coach Brad Stevens said the organizational goal remains the postseason.
“I want to approach every single day with that mind-set,” he said before his team’s 109-104 overtime loss in Chicago. “And I think the biggest thing is not look at it necessarily from what’s 52 games away, but look at it as how do we become the best team that we can be. For me, it’s identifying where we stand right now statistically.
“Our defense has improved over time. It’s gotten better. [Friday against Dallas] was not good, but a lot of that had to do with transition [defense] and bad offense. I think we’re just going to have to keep getting better on both ends.
“Our focus has to be to play good basketball and hopefully you put yourself in that [playoff] position.”
When asked what category he would like to improve, Stevens pointed to the defense. The Celtics went into Saturday 13th in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions (105.7), slightly above the NBA average.
“We’re [13th] in defense right now, we were 27th a month and half ago,” he said. “Let’s keep moving up. Let’s see how high we can get.’’
Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau was a Celtics assistant coach during the Big Three era and had nothing but compliments for Rondo, who scored 29 points in his return to Boston.
“It’s pretty amazing what Rajon did there,” Thibodeau said. “I watched the game and you’re thinking back to all the things he did, particularly in the playoffs. He was remarkable. He really was an offense unto himself. But Boston ended up doing well in getting guys for him. That adds to their depth.
“They’ve got some nice young pieces, a good blend. They have some very talented veterans and some good young players. They can score the ball.”
Thibodeau applauded Celtics vice president of basketball operations Danny Ainge for retooling the roster following the Big Three.
“I think Danny had a really good understanding of where the team was and what he’s trying to get accomplished, he’s done it before,” Thibodeau said. “He’s compiling assets and I think Boston’s going to be a dangerous team going forward.”
On Rondo’s performance Friday, Thibodeau said, “It didn’t shock me. Maybe the way he shot the ball, but he’s shown he’s had that capability. He’s not afraid. The bigger the moment, the better he plays. Dallas is a really talented team and I think it’s a good deal for both teams.”
Nelson stays home
Jameer Nelson met with head trainer Ed Lacerte and the two decided he would stay back in Boston with a sprained right ankle. Nelson has cemented a role as a backup point guard and his numbers with the Celtics have been strikingly inconsistent.
In six games, Nelson is shooting 22 percent (9 for 41) and 20 percent (5 for 25) from the 3-point line. But he has also notched 33 assists to just nine turnovers.
“He just has some soreness in his ankle, I guess it’s something he’s been dealing with a little bit,” Stevens said. “That was the conclusion.”
Stevens said the injury allows rookie Marcus Smart increased playing time at point guard.
Young returns to Maine
The Celtics assigned rookie James Young to NBADL Maine for its game Saturday against Delaware. In seven games for the Red Claws, Young was averaging 21.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 46.9 percent 3-point shooting. Stevens said Young is making progress defensively but the organization wants him to play with Maine if he is going to be placed on the inactive list with the Celtics, which was the case Friday . . . ESPN dropped the Jan. 14 Hawks-Celtics game at TD Garden and picked up Wizards-Bulls in Chicago. The Celtics have no ESPN appearances this season and three appearances on NBATV (Jan. 12 vs. Pelicans, Feb. 22 at Lakers, and March 23 at Nets) . . . The Bulls were without All-Star candidate Jimmy Butler (bereavement) and Mike Dunleavy (sore right ankle). Butler is expected to return for Monday’s game against the Rockets, while Dunleavy could miss several games.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe.