With another blowout win over the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday night, the Boston Celtics have strung together three straight at a crucial time in the season. With only seven games left in the regular season, the top of the Eastern Conference is a dog fight between the Celtics and Bucks for the #1 seed. Boston sits in second, 1.5 games back of Milwaukee and 2.5 ahead of Philadelphia, and with a matchup with the Bucks on Thursday, the Celtics could very well find themselves in prime position to reclaim the top seed.
The Bucks went on an insane hot streak to pull ahead of Boston, but after cooling off to a degree, the one seed is still very much in play. According to Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee overtaking them in the standings was a wakeup call for the team to play the right way and get back to what got them there in the first place.
“I think we’re getting more and more locked in,” said Brogdon. “I think it’s apparent. I think when Milwaukee took the number one seed from us after the break, it was sort of a shock to us that we had dropped because we had created some separation between us and them. And that’s something we want. We want the number one seed. I think this team understands the importance of having home court advantage in the playoffs, so that’s something we’re going after.”
If the team failed to retake the one seed, Brogdon said, “if we don’t get it...regardless, you’ve got to play basketball regardless. You’re gonna get people’s best game, and regardless you’re gonna have to go through teams like Milwaukee. So we’re going to be prepared regardless.”
The emphasis over these past few weeks as the team worked through struggles has not been on getting the one seed, but on playing the right brand of basketball and winning games.
Joe Mazzulla said as much back on March 5th following the team’s loss to the Knicks. “The only thing you can control is try to win the games,” said Mazzulla. “We put ourselves in the best possible chance to win, but [I have] zero concern. Just because there are 17 games left doesn’t mean that there’s any different than how a stretch of the season would go.” Fast forward to now, and that message still rings true as the team has begun to ramp back up to the same style of basketball that made them a dominant force at the beginning of the season.
Going against a lottery-bound Spurs team could have spelt disaster for the Celtics at times this season, just by simply not bringing the same level of execution and playing down to opponents. Before Sunday’s game, Mazzulla said, “I think it’s more about expectation. I mean, if we come in and just expect it to be a blowout, it probably won’t go our way. So I don’t care if we win by three or we win by 33. At the end of the day we have to continue to play the basketball that we have been playing, and we’ve shown signs of playing really good basketball. So I don’t care how we do it. It’s just important that we win.”
Boston has made a concerted effort to play their brand of basketball, and based on the last three games, it looks like they’ve rediscovered that facet of the team. When this squad is playing to its fullest potential, moving the ball like they’re capable of, and locking in on defense, they’re downright scary. Most importantly, the team’s leaders realize this, including Jaylen Brown, who lit up San Antonio for 41 points on 18-of-29 shooting.
“Obviously, seeding is important,” said Brown after the game. “But how you’re playing is more important. I was more focused on how we were playing than what our seed was. I thought that even though we were the best team in the league for a large majority of this season, it was stretches in this season where we were winning games because we were better than teams, but we weren’t playing the way we were capable of.”
“We kind of got comfortable at different moments,” said Brown. “And we’ll pull games out and even though we won, everybody would be happy, but in reality, we shouldn’t even have been close. So now, with us being a little bit in the hunt again, everybody kind of refocuses and plays the way we need to play.”
In an 82-game season, lulls are bound to happen, and it had become a major talking point as the Celtics hobbled through the past few weeks, not playing with the intensity or urgency needed against every opponent. Now, things seem to have taken a turn, and that complacency has been left at the wayside as the playoffs lurk right around the corner. There’s no guarantee that the Celtics manage to retake the one seed, but the one thing they can do is control what they can control, and that means winning games by playing their winning brand of basketball.
Boston will take on the Washington Wizards on the road on Tuesday, 7 pm EST tipoff.