Late Monday night, after a loss by the Nets clinched a playoff berth for the Celtics, coach Brad Stevens was not thinking about the playoffs. He was thinking about Tuesday’s game against the Raptors.
And this should come as no surprise. As Stevens has orchestrated the Celtics’ surprising rise, his focus has never wavered. Sure, the postseason would be exciting, but there was no reason to daydream about it just yet. So Stevens sent a text message to his team.
“We have an opportunity to compete,” he said, referring to the Toronto game. “And when you have an opportunity to compete, you compete as well as you possibly can.”
It was, in a sense, another test for this young group. Could they remain focused? Could they stay in the moment?
The answer, resoundingly, was yes. Jae Crowder caught an inbounds pass in the right corner and drained a 20-footer with 0.8 seconds left, sending Boston to a 95-93 win over the Raptors, one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
“Tonight was a night they could have been distracted and off of their game, and they weren’t,” Stevens said. “And that’s good to know, because there’s gonna be distractions in the next couple of weeks.”
The Celtics received a kind of cruel reward for winning for the seventh time in eight games. On Tuesday, they clinched the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and that means their opening-round series will come against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Congrats, now go play LeBron.
That series will begin in Cleveland this weekend.
“We have to bring the physicality,” guard Evan Turner said. “If not, we’ve seen what they’ve done to us.”
Turner was probably referring to the Celtics’ 110-79 loss at Cleveland on March 3, their most lopsided defeat of this season.
Boston actually defeated the Cavaliers last Friday and Sunday, but Cleveland rested its stars for much of that weekend. Those days are over, and the Celtics understand that.
“They’re gonna give us some good punches,” Crowder said. “We’ve got to withstand that and be strong. Play together.”
There were questions about whether Stevens might rest some players against the Raptors, either because they needed it or because it could potentially help line up a first-round series against the Hawks instead the Cavs.
But Atlanta has 60 wins this season — eight more than Cleveland.
Also, that is simply not how Stevens operates. His primary aim entering Tuesday was to continue the recent momentum.
The Celtics were engaged and active from the start. Even when Boston fell behind by 15 points in the first half, the sellout crowd’s vitality made this feel like a playoff game.
The Celtics outscored the Raptors, 27-17, in the third quarter and started the final period with a 73-70 edge. Neither team led by more than 5 points for the remainder of the quarter. Every attack was met with a counter.
The score was tied at 89 until Turner caught an inbounds pass and hit a 17-footer with 35.2 seconds left. Kyle Lowry answered with a strong, driving layup with 31.1 seconds remaining.
Turner then missed a floater, but he corralled a rebound and fed Tyler Zeller for a layup. Once again, Lowry answered with a tough drive, tying the score at 93 with 10.2 seconds to play.
After Turner’s shot at the other end was blocked out of bounds, the Celtics called timeout and prepared to inbound the ball with 3.1 seconds remaining. The play was designed for Isaiah Thomas to feign a move toward the inbounder, curl behind Crowder’s defender, and set a screen near the top of the key.
Crowder waited, then blitzed toward the right corner, caught a pass from Marcus Smart, and drained the 22-foot jumper, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
“You can’t be surprised with Brad, you know?” Crowder said. “He draws up some good stuff.”
At the other end, the Raptors were unable to get off a shot before time expired. The Celtics had their win.
They will close the regular season Wednesday night, when they visit the Milwaukee Bucks. Stevens intimated that he would lean heavily on his reserves in that game.
Starting guard Avery Bradley, who suffered a left quad contusion on Tuesday, will not make the trip, but is expected to be fine.
Once the meaningless game against the Bucks ends, the Celtics will no longer have to worry about looking ahead to the playoffs, because the playoffs will be here. The Celtics will be off to Cleveland, off to see LeBron.
“To have a chance to compete against the very best in the league, it’s a great opportunity,” Stevens said. “And hey, it’s a big mountain.”