NEW YORK — Just over two years ago, the Celtics were 16-30 and seemingly in the infant stages of a rebuild.
Jae Crowder, who had arrived via a trade just six weeks earlier, had approached coach Brad Stevens and asked him if the team was trying to lose on purpose to secure a better draft pick. He wanted to know if they were tanking.
Isaiah Thomas had yet to arrive, and had thus yet to transform into a two-time All-Star, and so the Celtics’ immediate future seemed mostly cloudy with a good chance of losses.
On Sunday afternoon, Boston coasted to a 110-94 win over the lowly Knicks at Madison Square Garden. It was Boston’s 50th win of the season, a milestone that is generally viewed as the league-wide indicator of a successful year, and the Celtics still have five games left.
Even Stevens, who is usually reluctant to acknowledge progress while a season is still in progress, allowed a moment to acknowledge that this mark had meaning.
“I think that a couple of years ago I would have thought that that was going to be something that we were really going to have to build for a while to,” he said. “But I thought that obviously we’ve been lucky to strike on a couple of guys, and everybody’s got a like mind with regard to the bigger purpose of playing for the Celtics and trying to compete every night.”
Stevens quickly cautioned, though, that this team needs to finish the regular season with a rhythm. They are not here just to win 50 games. And that general message resonated in the calm locker room afterward, too.
“It was definitely an individual goal of mine coming into the season, to win 50 games,” Thomas said. “I’m just glad we got to that. But like I keep saying, we still got a lot more work to do.”
With the win, the Celtics remained in first place in the Eastern Conference standings, with Wednesday’s showdown against the second-place Cavaliers at TD Garden looming. That game could ultimately decide seeding atop the conference.
The Celtics know it is an important matchup —and potentially a preview of the conference finals — and they relish such opportunities. But they are not going to freak out.
When Thomas was asked what he looks forward to most about facing Cleveland, he paused and smiled.
“Nothing,” he said.
Then, as he walked out of the locker room, he said he just liked seeing what kind of sneakers LeBron James wears.
Celtics guard Avery Bradley, who Sunday sat for the third time in five games with a stomach illness, is set to return to practice Tuesday. But Boston could now be facing a new health issue in a season that has been full of them. Crowder left the game in the third quarter after experiencing swelling in his left elbow. He said he did not know what caused the issue, but X-rays were negative, and he is hopeful it is not serious.
“It started tingling,” Crowder said. “Not really, like, excruciating pain. It was just a weird type feeling. I’ve never had anything happen like that to my elbow.”
Crowder did not play in the fourth quarter, but neither did Thomas, Al Horford, or Amir Johnson, because the lead was so comfortable that they were able to rest.
New York was without injured Carmelo Anthony (back), and during the game it was announced that Derrick Rose would miss the rest of the season with a torn meniscus in his left knee. On top of all of that, the Knicks are still the Knicks, trudging toward the finish line of another blah season.
The Celtics, for the most part, just had to find a way to avoid being swept up in the general malaise here. But that was a concern, because Boston has sometimes struggled during games in which there appeared no real reason to.
This victory, however, came easily. The Celtics started the day with an Amir Johnson 3-pointer and then never relinquished that lead.
Thomas had 19 points and six assists in just 24 minutes, and Horford added 14 points and seven rebounds. Boston shot 55.6 percent from the field, while the Knicks made just 38.8 percent.
Really, New York is a perfect example of what can happen when a rebuild goes awry. The Knicks remain deep in a rut that has lingered for years, amid lukewarm and misguided attempts to get out of it.
The Celtics understand it is not always this easy to go from bad to good to potentially great, but they are pleased to be at that point now.
They are pleased to have win No. 50.
“For this team, everybody doubted us [and said] that we were in the rebuilding stage,” Marcus Smart said. “And for us to come out and do the things we’re doing early in the process for us feels good. I know fans love it, Boston loves it, and this team has really prided themselves on it.”