Hanging on to the Eastern Conference's eighth seed by a thread, the Celtics have won five of their last seven games and currently stand a half-game in front of Indiana and Charlotte for that final playoff slot. Brad Stevens' resilient young group is coming off of a tough three-game week, jump started by a blowout victory over a division rival before falling short versus two dangerous clubs out west.
It would have been nice to win at least two out of three this past week but if it makes you feel better, the Pacers have cooled off in the midst of a five-game losing streak while Charlotte has dropped three straight.
Coming off of a big four-point road victory in Indiana last Saturday, the Celtics headed back home to begin the new week against the
Tankadelphia Tankety-Tankers Philadelphia 76ers at the Garden on Monday night.
This one was over as soon as it started. Massachusetts native Nerlens Noel put together a solid 18-point, seven-rebound homecoming performance but the Sixers were completely unable to match Boston's energy from the get-go. The Celtics came out of the gate firing on all cylinders, headlined by a 38-point first quarter that put Philly in a 20-point hole just one quarter into the contest.
Tyler Zeller's size and activity level was too much for Brett Brown's front line to handle, as the former North Carolina Tar Heel accumulated a career-high 26 points on an ultra efficient 11-15 clip from the field. Seven feet is seven feet and you can't teach size, but there's something to be said about how Zeller often finds himself in the right spot at the right time, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. While Philadelphia may not necessarily be the best group to gauge yourself against, Zeller was clearly ahead of his interior opponents in terms of intelligence and his feel for the game.
If you play fantasy basketball, Avery Bradley was a heck of a guy to have on your roster on Monday night, as well. Bradley had his stroke going and was, as usual, absolutely all over the place on the defensive end of the floor on his way to a line of 20 points, 10 boards, six assists and two steals to go along with 4-7 shooting from beyond the arc. Thanks to the blowout situation, Luigi Datome was given additional opportunities to shine late in the game and he made the most of it by shooting 4-8 from the field, including two triples on his way to 10 points and a career-high three blocks.
Monday night's W marked a five-game winning streak for Boston, who would have their work cut out for them on the west coast for the remainder of the week.
Two nights later, the bulldog defensive combo of Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart were put to the ultimate test against the dynamic presence of MVP candidate Russell Westbrook. Throughout the first half, especially, it was no walk in the park for Westbrook and the Thunder, as Boston made it a point to come out as the more aggressive and physical club. Westbrook struggled to create his own offense efficiently early on, thanks to tight ball pressure and being forced into taking tough shots against a team that made it clear they were not going to back down.
Westbrook hit just one of his first eight field goal attempts, most of which coming in the form of a pull-up jump shot, while turning the ball over six times in the first half.
The Celtics held a four-point cushion at intermission, and then all hell broke loose in the third quarter when Westbrook reminded everybody why he is so special. In the blink of an eye, the former UCLA Bruin imposed his will on the game and the Celtics could do nothing to stop it. After missing his first four shot attempts of the second half, Westbrook put his head down and attacked the rim in vintage form, getting to the line for 10 free throws in the third frame to help him put together a 15-point quarter.
Westbrook's attack mentality was contagious, as Oklahoma City shot 19 free throws in the third quarter, where they held a fatal 40-24 advantage on the scoreboard.
Marcus Smart lead the way for Boston with a big time performance in front of his beloved Oklahoma crowd. The former Oklahoma State Cowboy played the best game of his young NBA career, thanks to a scorching hot 7-12 shooting clip from three-point land on his way to 25 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks in front of his friends, family and fans. Kelly Olynyk came off the bench to provide a spark, dropping a 20-piece of his own after a few lackluster outings in a row. It was good to see Olynyk play that aggressively, now let's make a habit of it!
Unfortunately, that third quarter meltdown was too much for the Celtics to overcome. Despite an admirable late-game push and a 37-point fourth quarter output, Boston ultimately dug themselves into a hole too deep to climb out of. Enes Kanter deserves a lot of credit for putting his big body to good use against a thin frontcourt, but it's no secret who took this game over. Russell Westbrook shot 8-26 from the field and turned the ball over seven times, but he showed up when his team needed his most and he shot a ridiculous 19-22 from the free throw line single-handedly on his way to 36 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and five steals.
To close out the week, Boston made a trip to San Antonio to take on the defending champs in their house on Friday night. That is never an easy task for anyone, but let's just say coach Stevens had a lot to talk about in yesterday's film session.
The Spurs did what they always do. They played together, perplexed the opposition with crisp, rapidfire ball movement, held their opponent to 40% shooting from the field and took care of business on their home court. The way this group moves the ball should not be taken for granted by any basketball fan. It's special, and it was on full display on Friday night.
Evan Turner helped spark a 14-0 run in the fourth quarter, but it was too little, too late. After the third frame, San Antonio had already built a 21-point lead and if you plan on overcoming that at the AT&T Center, "good luck" is all I have to say to you.
That Kawhi Leonard cat is pretty good, too, huh?
Marcus Smart made the headlines by hitting the Red Rocket right in the red rocket late in the game, and he'll pay for it as he watches the Celtics take on Detroit from home this evening.
CELTICS PLAYER OF THE WEEK
11.7 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 3.0 APG, 50% FG
We have seen a handful of excellent performances this week, as both Bradley and Zeller dominated Philadelphia, Evan Turner played outstanding read & react basketball in OKC and Marcus Smart complemented that beautifully with the game of his young career on the same night. However, those guys didn't get it done at a high level every night this week and even struggled at times.
If you ask me, Jae Crowder made the most consistent positive impact on the floor this week. His high motor never stops running, his energy level is contagious and he is really giving the Celtics a lot of different things on both ends of the floor. In some ways, Crowder is a utility specialist that isn't particularly elite in any category, but is always making plays on both ends and his presence alone makes the Celtics a tougher squad when he is on the court.
Crowder has earned 30+ minutes in three of the last four games, and for good reason. The dreadlocked assassin has had better weeks shooting the rock, but he operates like a big bowl of gumbo and makes a positive impact regardless of whether or not his shot is falling.
Number 99 was particularly effective in Oklahoma City on Wednesday night, where he put up a full line of 11 points, nine rebounds and five assists as he was a big part of Boston's defensive success in the first half and continues to surprise us with his ability to put the ball on the floor to make a play.
Crowder shot just 5-14 against the Spurs on Friday night, but he earned heavy minutes with his activity level, defensive tenacity and versatility as a combo forward. Coach Stevens even (not even Stevens) started Crowder at the four in the second half, a situational lineup that I personally enjoy.
The week starts on Sunday (or Monday if you're a stubborn hooligan), but Crowder's 16-point, seven-rebound outing was a big part of Boston's big Saturday night win in Indianapolis, as well.
I've said it before and I'll say it again. Before the Rondo trade, I knew Crowder was a physical body, a good defensive player and a strong hustle guy but his offensive skill is as pleasant of a surprise as anything regarding the Celtics this season. The man can play. Let's hope he is wearing green long term.
LOOKING AHEAD: Any time you're battling for playoff positioning, every game is big, especially late in the regular season. This week, however, the Celtics have a chance to gain some extra separation in the standings as they face off with a couple of teams working towards the same goal.
After hosting Detroit at the Garden later tonight, the Celtics will head to Brooklyn (currently 1 game behind Boston) on the second night of a back-to-back Monday night. Two days later, Miami (currently 7th in the East) comes to town seeking revenge for Boston's 10-point victory on March 9, as the Heat look to hold their spot in the top eight. To close out this week, the C's will make a trip to Madison Square Garden in their fourth and final meeting with the Knicks this season.
Can the men in green improve their winning percentage and take another step closer to a postseason berth? You bet. Let's go Celtics!