Even after reaching top of East, Celtics motivated by doubters

Isaiah Thomas: Being at top of East is "cool," but "we're chasing (1:07)

Isaiah Thomas: Being at top of East is "cool," but "we're chasing something bigger than that." Video by Chris Forsberg (1:07)

WALTHAM, Mass. -- The Boston Celtics seem fueled at times by disrespect and doubt. As such, it was fair to wonder how the team would respond to reaching the top spot in the Eastern Conference for the first time in six years.

Maybe not surprisingly, Boston continues to embrace an us-against-the-world mentality, even as it controls its destiny in a quest to finish the regular season as the East’s No. 1 seed.

All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas and his teammates downplayed Boston’s top billing on Tuesday while noting the nebulous nature of their half-game lead over the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Yet Thomas balanced that by stressing that the Celtics remain underappreciated by a national media that is more focused on star-heavy teams such as the Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors.

“Man, nobody respects us,” Thomas noted near the end of his six-minute chat with reporters after Boston’s off-day practice. “Except our peers, the guys you play against, respect us. But when it comes to, like, national media, that’s just what it is.

“We don’t have LeBron James on our team. We don’t have the Steph Currys and those type of guys. Not to throw shade at any of those guys, but that’s just what it is. We’re a group of guys who have been counted out our whole careers. We like staying under the radar. That’s just who we are.”

Taking over the top spot in the East has done little to chisel at the chips on the shoulders of these perpetually motivated Celtics.

Do not misinterpret: Thomas said he believes that the Cavaliers will pull themselves from their late-season funk. He stressed that the road to the NBA Finals goes through Cleveland. He noted that the Celtics still have to prove they can win in the postseason after first-round exits the past two seasons and admitted that he hasn't yet proven that he can win in the playoffs.

But having finally ascended to the top of the East, with little more than two weeks remaining in the regular season, Thomas simply asserted that Boston has earned its lofty position.

“S---, the numbers don’t lie,” he said. “We’re right there with all the tops teams in the NBA. I mean, we are a top team.”

Thomas made sure to also stress that the Celtics are not celebrating this brief arrival at the peak of the East: "We’re chasing something bigger."

As they have throughout their climb to the top spot, the Celtics remained on-message when asked Tuesday about finally leapfrogging Cleveland. Coach Brad Stevens and his players said the team’s focus is on making the necessary strides to be playing their best basketball when the postseason arrives.

“We’re showing flashes of what we can be as a team,” Avery Bradley said. “We just need to continue playing the right way, moving the ball around, defending with purpose. And that’s the most important thing for us: worrying about what we can control.

“Every team in the NBA should want to be the best team in the NBA. We’re showing that we can be if we’re playing the right way, if we’re playing the right kind of basketball. That’s an accomplishment, to be the first team in the East. We understand that. But at the same time, we understand we could lose it tomorrow. So we just have to focus and worry about [Wednesday’s] game, and everything will take care of itself.”

Thomas noted that, until quizzed by reporters, players hadn’t discussed taking over sole possession of the No. 1 seed in the East following Cleveland's lopsided loss Monday in San Antonio.

That’s music to the Stevens' ears.

“[Being the No. 1 seed] doesn’t mean a whole lot right now,” he said. “Hey, the whole idea is to make progress and get better every day and try to stay in the moment. ... Ultimately, we’ve been able to grow and get a little better, but I still think we can play a lot better, and that’s where my focus is, and I think we have to keep it there."

Even as the Cavaliers stumble through March, there's a lingering notion that the Cavaliers can crank it up in the postseason. If Cleveland elects to rest players over the final weeks of the regular season -- maybe even during the final head-to-head matchup with Boston on April 5 -- it might diminish Boston's achievement, as some will suggest the Cavaliers essentially ceded that top spot by choosing health over seeding.

That's just more fuel for these Celtics, more motivation to prove they are true contenders. But they can't answer those questions until the postseason. For now, they can only embrace their coach's message and try to finish the regular season as strong as possible.

Securing that top spot -- no matter the means -- gives Boston the best opportunity to achieve the postseason success it covets.