DETROIT — It seems support for the idea of the Celtics essentially tanking this season for a high lottery pick and possibly a franchise-changing player has been replaced by a groundswell of enthusiasm for the possibility of returning to the postseason.
There have been questions around the NBA as to whether the Celtics overachieving was an unintended consequence from Danny Ainge’s plethora of moves to improve the long-term health of the organization. Ainge has said several times that barely climbing into the postseason with zero chance at winning an NBA title is hardly reason for encouragement or sign of progress.
The Celtics president has remained mostly mum on the team’s postseason run that has turned serious of late, but he told the Globe this week he fully supports his team’s playoff quest despite the possibility of it costing the organization spots in June’s NBA Draft.
“Hopefully we can get a little better [over the next few days] because I think that both players and coaches feel like there’s things we can do better, but especially with such a young team we need more practice time together to reach our full potential,” Ainge said. “That’s why being in the playoffs would be nice from that standpoint, having a couple of weeks of hard games to prepare for and focus. I think that’s even more valuable than what we’re going through right now, which is valuable. I’m excited about the last five games of the season, to see how it turns out. I’m excited we get a couple of days off to catch our breath and we get some practice time.”
The Celtics currently hold the eighth and final playoff spot with five games left — Wednesday at Detroit, Friday at Cleveland, Sunday home against Cleveland, April 14 home against Toronto and April 15 at Milwaukee — and each game will be critical considering the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and Charlotte Hornets are all within 1½ games.
If Boston does reach the postseason, the highest it could draft is 15th, which could land the Celtics a solid player but perhaps not one of the most coveted. Ainge said he is prepared for that possibility. The Celtics also own the Clippers’ first-round pick from the Doc Rivers transaction.
“It’s hard to manage a bunch of different agendas at once and we’re just trying to get our players better,” said Ainge about an improving roster and his draft plans. “It’s been a very positive year whatever happens in these last five difficult games ahead of us. But I believe there’s been a lot that’s been accomplished. It’s a credit to the players and the coaches. You could be the greatest coach in the world but if you got players that don’t have character to understand where the team is at and what’s happening . . . It could be tough on any coach and I think it’s a credit to Brad [Stevens] and the players that they’re playing and developing a reputation of a team that shows up to play and they’re playing hard and they’re playing to win. They’re achieving a lot for a team that probably doesn’t have as much talent on paper as the teams they’re competing against.
“I’ve tempered my expectations. During the [Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green] trades, I just didn’t know how it was going to work out this year. But I’m excited for the players. I want them to have success and I want my coaches to have success. I’m just like anybody else. I’m rooting for their success.”
The roster Ainge compiled meshed together for an improbable run since the Green trade. The Celtics are 23-20 since the Green deal was announced Jan. 9 in Indiana and 15-9 in their past 24 games heading into Wednesday’s matchup with the Pistons.
Isaiah Thomas has added scoring punch off the bench. Tyler Zeller has turned into a pick-and-roll weapon. Avery Bradley is becoming a more consistent scorer. Jae Crowder has become a fearless defender and clutch shooter. Evan Turner has posted three triple-doubles in his past 23 games after zero in his first 360 NBA games.
Ainge did not want to credit one individual but he has been thoroughly pleased with the performance of the roster.
“What I like about the team is everybody is making plays,” he said. “Everybody is doing something on different nights, a few different guys and I think Avery’s had a really good year, obviously Isaiah has given us a boost. Marcus [Smart] has had a really good year for a 20-year-old rookie. He’s really played well. He plays winning basketball. He has a lot of really great characteristics. I’ve really enjoyed it. But Brandon [Bass] and Kelly [Olynyk], and Tyler has played really well. Last couple of games he’s had 20 points in short minutes. He’s contributing. Everybody is just, Jae Crowder, it seems like they’re playing the best basketball they’ve played. And that’s fun to see.”
Stevens could receive Coach of the Year votes and the team’s performance in late-game situations over the past few months have boosted Stevens’s reputation as an astute coach.
“He’s improved a lot as a coach,” Ainge said. “He’d be the first to tell you he’s understanding the NBA life and the differences of the NBA game versus the college game he’s grown up in. But he’s always been very smart. He’s always watching a lot, studying a lot, thinking, contemplating on how to use the players that he has and use their strength. I’m never surprised when he’s prepared. That’s what I think of when I think of Brad, a guy that is very smart and very prepared.”