Boston wants to make its case as a contender in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics may not have the star power of the Cavaliers or the recent success of the Raptors, but they keep winning games and might be the next-best team behind those two leaders in the Eastern Conference.
The Celtics turned in their latest impressive performance by beating the Clippers 139-134 in overtime on Wednesday night. Boston has won 10 of their past 12 and are now third in the conference with a 32-23 record. It's crowded in the East behind Cleveland and an emerging Toronto, but Boston likewise has been rising up the standings and showing it could be a team to watch. Wins over the Cavs and Clippers in the last week are proof they're not just beating up on middling fodder, either.
Brad Stevens has this team playing good basketball on both ends of the court. The team's offensive rating (103.5 points per 100 possessions) is ninth in the NBA and its defensive rating (99.6) is third, per NBA.com. The Celtics outscore opponents by 3.9 points per 100 possessions, which is third in the East and seventh in the league. Any way you slice it, Boston looks for real. And those numbers are trending upwards, too.
Isaiah Thomas has been the engine behind the team's offense and an energetic defender on the other end despite his lack of size. The point guard went off against LA for 36 points and 11 assists in 40 minutes. He's a deserving first-time All-Star this year and the best player on a team that doesn't have a traditional big name. His shot with less than six seconds left in the fourth quarter forced OT:
Overtime in Boston. Why overtime? Because Isaiah Thomas did this: pic.twitter.com/uLNpLzqZ6c— Boston Celtics (@celtics) February 11, 2016
The Clippers then started the extra period on a 6-0 run thanks to back-to-back fouls by Avery Bradley on J.J. Redick three-point attempts. Redick hit the first one en route to a four-point play, then hit 2-of-3 free throws after getting fouled again behind the arc on the team's next possession. The Celtics responded to that hole by going on a 17-6 run over the final four minutes of OT to get the win.
Instead of stars, Boston has Thomas and an interesting cast of role players. Bradley and Jae Crowder help lead the perimeter defense (which is very good, occasional unfortunate fouls aside) and add shooting. Jared Sullinger anchors the middle. Evan Turner, Marcus Smart, Jonas Jerebko, Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk, who left with a shoulder injury, offer versatility off the bench. Thomas is the leading scorer on most nights, but the wins come because Stevens has figured out how to mix and match a deep rotation.
And that's what makes the Celtics both interesting and worthy of skepticism. Sullinger had a huge game against the Clips with 21 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists in 30 minutes, despite battling foul trouble. Crowder had 19 points and eight rebounds before fouling out. Bradley recorded 18 points. Turner and Smart scored a combined 31 off the bench. There's a bunch of talent, but no real go-to player beyond the 5'9 point guard.
The NBA is a superstar-driven league and it's not going to be easy for a team like Boston to ultimately take on the juggernauts. Maybe the team is trying to put together a blockbuster before the trade deadline to bring in a big talent. But even so, the Celtics seem to be emerging a bit from the morass in the middle of the East standings, and they're doing it by winning games against good teams.
2 things we learned
Karl-Anthony Towns scores career-high, Wolves upset Raptors
The young talent in Minnesota appears to be coming together. The Timberwolves topped the Raptors 117-112 on Wednesday for their third win in four games. The other two came against the Bulls and Clippers, giving the team a trio of victories over above-.500 teams since the beginning of February.
Karl-Anthony Towns scored a career-high 35 points, Andrew Wiggins added 26 points and Ricky Rubio nearly recorded a triple-double to beat Toronto. The Raptors entered the game red hot as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and came away with just their second loss in the past month. For a night, we got to see what the Timberwolves might be like once they start to mature and consistently live up to their impressive talent.
Towns was stellar by shooting 12-of-19 from the field and 11-of-13 from the free throw line. He also grabbed 11 rebounds for his ninth straight double-double. Rubio had 19 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. Big man Gorgui Dieng was also impressive with 14 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and two steals over 41 minutes. Minnesota just couldn't be stopped at the rim. The Timberwolves shot a combined 43-of-53 from the free throw line and led 46-34 in points in the paint.
That's a reminder of Minnesota's impressive athleticism. DeMar DeRozan was the only player on the Raptors who played well by scoring 35 points in 37 minutes. Otherwise, this was the Timberwolves' night. In the future, it seems likely we'll get a lot more of these.
The Suns have all sorts of problems
The post-Jeff Hornacek era has not started well in Phoenix. The Suns not only lost their ninth game in a row on Wednesday but had some drama on the bench in the middle of a 112-104 loss to the Warriors. Markieff Morris and teammate Archie Goodwin got into a fight during a break in the action that required others to pull the two of them apart:
In tonight's loss, Markieff Morris & Archie Goodwin got into a shoving match. Things are getting worse in Phoenix.https://t.co/p2tcr9eQnQ— FOX Sports: Hoops (@HoopsonFOX) February 11, 2016
It's unclear what spurred the argument but both players would remain in the game. It continues a chaotic year for Morris and the Suns. Phoenix traded Morris' brother, Marcus, to the Pistons during the offseason as part of an ill-fated pursuit of LaMarcus Aldridge. That led to Markieff demanding a trade of his own, but a deal never came to fruition. This season he's been in and out of the lineup amid trade rumors.
Hornacek, that team's head coach, got fired at the beginning of February and was replaced by Earl Watson in an interim role. The team responded by showing some extra effort, which often happens immediately after a coaching change, but the result has just been more losses. That's clearly led to some frustration, which can boil over like it did with Morris and Goodwin.
The Suns still have some intriguing talent, including guards Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and rookie Devin Booker, but a lost season is showing no signs of turning around. It'll be interesting to see what Phoenix does at the trade deadline with Morris and others.
Play of the night
Not the most graceful play, but an incredible one by Chris Paul nonetheless. The Celtics are clearly looking to pull the Hack-A-Jordan here as CP3 brings the ball up the court when the point guard notices and decides to jump in the way of a sprinting Jonas Jerebko in order to draw a foul. Jerebko runs clean into Paul because he's so focused on Jordan and ends up fouling the guard, who's shooting 89 percent on free throws this year, instead. Paul missed one of the free throws, making the whole thing kinda moot, but this was still an example of why Paul is one of the craftiest players in the NBA.
A fun thing
* * *
Kobe-LeBron Bromance: Legends show each other love
Be sure to subscribe to SB Nation's YouTube channel for highlight videos, features, analysis and more