Eastern Conference teams stepping up so far in 2019-20

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has been impressed by the play of Eastern Conference teams so far this season.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has been impressed by the play of Eastern Conference teams so far this season.Winslow Townson/FR170221 AP via AP

For years, the Eastern Conference has been viewed as the West’s little brother. The Raptors’ NBA title last season helped shift that perception a bit, and this year the top of the conference appears quite strong, with the Celtics, Heat, Pacers, and Raptors joining the preseason favorite Bucks and 76ers with winning percentages of .650 or better.

“Miami’s outstanding to start the year,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said before his team beat the Heat, 112-93, Wednesday night at TD Garden. “Indiana’s playing ridiculous basketball. We just got beat at Brooklyn. Like, you go through the list, it’s just deeper and better. And that’s why we know we’re going to have to have all of our guys playing at a high level to have a chance as we continue to hope to improve. Because it’s just a different level than it was a few years ago.”


Defensive slippage

Entering Wednesday’s game, the Celtics had the 18th-ranked defense in the NBA over their last four games.

Stevens said he has noticed the slippage recently.

“There’s a lot of different things you can point to,” he said. “Sometimes you have to refocus and get back in the gym to get a little bit better. It’s gone game-to-game. The Sacramento game I thought we got screened all over the place. The Brooklyn game at home I thought we were much better than the numbers we gave up when we went back and looked at film, and then I thought we weren’t as good at Brooklyn. It’s just been inconsistent. Technically I feel pretty good. We’ve got a lot in that we haven’t had in the past, in large part because we’ve had to scramble around from the get-go because we’ve been small.”

Ill Smart out

Celtics guard Marcus Smart missed Wednesday’s game because of an illness. Smart suffered an oblique contusion when he tried to draw an offensive foul during the Celtics’ win over the Knicks on Sunday, but Stevens said that is unlikely to be a long-term issue.


“It was more of the combination of the soreness, but the sickness is what knocked him out tonight,” Stevens said. “He was going to be doubtful with the oblique, but the sickness is what knocked him out. Hopefully he gets well soon. He’s been in contact with our docs, and then they’ll check the oblique when he gets back in the practice facility, hopefully [Thursday].”

Rookie Grant Williams started in place of Smart against Miami.

Craig steps in

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra left the team on Wednesday morning to return to Miami for the birth of his child. Heat assistant Dan Craig, who attended Chelmsford High, took over in his place.

Craig said he grew up in upstate New York and moved to Massachusetts when he was 12 and quickly became a Celtics fan.

This was the second time Craig has taken the reins for the Heat because of the birth of one of Spoelstra’s children.

“I had more notice last time,” he said. “Yeah. I had a day prior. I had a night to prepare. This was in the morning, when coach got the message from his wife that she was having contractions. He got on a flight this morning, fortunately got back there safely, and he’s with her now.”

Open-door policy

Former Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk kept his house in Boston for a couple years after signing with the Heat in 2017, but he said on Wednesday that he recently sold the property. “Can always buy another one,” Olynyk said with a smile.


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.