The Eastern Conference standings are often shown on the TD Garden scoreboard. For much of this season, that graphic has provided little reason for Celtics fans to look up from their cheese nachos.
But this surging team entered Monday night in the thick of a playoff race, improbable as that may sound. And so when the standings glowed from above at halftime, some fans nudged the people next to them, craned their necks, and pointed to this surprising story that is unfolding along Causeway Street.
There were the Celtics, stubbornly refusing to wait until next year. There were the Celtics, a team that is ready to see where this unanticipated road leads.
Boston’s 108-89 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers was its fifth win in a row and seventh in eight games. Skeptics will point to the fact that the bumbling 76ers were the opponent, but that overlooks the fact that this surge also has included wins against the Grizzlies, Pelicans, and Pacers.
The Celtics are now in a three-way tie for seventh place in the Eastern Conference with 16 games remaining. They are, unequivocally, contenders to reach the postseason.
“We never thought we didn’t have a chance to make the playoffs,” guard Avery Bradley said.
The last four wins have come without the magnetic point guard, Isaiah Thomas, who remains sidelined with a bruised lower back. And before that, Bradley was lost for three games with a sprained elbow. And before that Jared Sullinger was gone for the year with a foot injury. And before that, Kelly Olynyk was out with a sprained ankle.
Night after night, though, a different player steps in and steps up. Unlike many of the other victories, this one was so lopsided that it required no heroics.
Nevertheless, there were essential pieces. There was Tyler Zeller, scoring a career-high 26 points in just 28 minutes. There was Bradley, filling up a box score with 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists.
“It could be anybody,” Bradley said. “We don’t have one star. We just have a lot of good players, really good players.”
In all, seven Celtics reached double figures and the team shot 50 percent from the floor. They are most dangerous when they are balanced and accurate.
“You have a lot more fun when you spray the ball around the way we’re spraying it around,” coach Brad Stevens said. “And when you’re competing together and pulling for one another, and five guys are playing on a string defensively.”
Boston scored the game’s first 7 points, and the lead continued to swell. With 6:07 left in the second quarter, Jae Crowder swung a pass to Bradley, whose 3-pointer gave the Celtics their largest advantage of the night, 51-24.
It seemed like a logical time to exhale. Or a logical time for fans to gaze up at standings on scoreboards. But Stevens had seen his team squander too many cozy leads this season.
It had even happened here, against these same 76ers, just over a month ago. On Feb. 6, Boston’s 26-point edge was whittled to 3 before it ultimately held on for the win. Stevens reminded his players of that game as they sought to press on in this one.
“Are we any better?” he asked them. “Let’s find out.”
The 76ers started the second half with a mild flurry, as a Luc Mbah a Moute 3-pointer trimmed their deficit to 61-45. But they never really established anything resembling a legitimate threat.
Within three minutes, the lead was back to 22 points. The fourth quarter provided no drama, and Stevens was fine with that.
“I think the biggest thing is, when you’re up 23, being able to answer their punches quickly,” Stevens said. “And we did that.”
Added Bradley, “In the beginning of the year, we might have put our heads down and let them come back, and probably lost a 20-point lead.”
But this, clearly, is not the beginning of the year. The Celtics now face perhaps their most difficult and important two-game road trip of the season, as they travel to Oklahoma City and San Antonio, most likely without Thomas.
Stevens consistently has said he pays little mind to the standings, and Monday he said he never even had heard the players discuss the playoffs. But with each win that tightens the standings and brings the end of the regular season closer, the Celtics will be increasingly aware of their surroundings. Monday night’s win was progress.
“It’s a step,” Marcus Smart said. “It’s a big step.”
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.