The day before the Boston Celtics opened their season-long six-game road trip in Los Angeles, second-year coach Brad Stevens was asked what his goals were for the team's high-mileage journey.
"We just need to get better," Stevens said. "We haven’t played well enough to get over the hump against the best of the best. And so we need to take care of what we can take care of to get a little bit better to do that. ... You’ve got to make sure you take care of the ones in your control. We’re just not as good as we need to be at doing that, for whatever reason, right now. I don’t think anybody is exactly where they want to be at the end of the year in doing that, but our margin is such that we better be pretty close to it."
Stevens' words stuck with us, especially after Boston stole Thursday's nail-biter in Portland on Evan Turner's late-game heroics. Three of Boston's final four games on the trip were against non-playoff-caliber teams (Denver, Utah, Minnesota) and it seemed an opportunity to make up some ground despite the obstacles working against them in terms of travel and lack of rest.
Boston didn't just beat Denver and Utah, it put up a solid fight against the league-leading Golden State Warriors in between those triumphs. Now Boston has a chance to finish off this road trip at 4-2 with a win against the league-worst Timberwolves on Wednesday night. It would be the first time the team produced a winning record on a road trip of at least five games since February 2010, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
For the moment, Boston sits 11 games under .500 at 16-27, but that's good enough in the downtrodden Eastern Conference to be just two games out of a playoff berth and in a cluster of teams that could potentially jockey for final playoff berths.
It seems a bit ludicrous to be talking playoffs. These overhauled-on-the-fly Celtics were supposed to head out west, come fully unglued and stumble back home ready to spend the second half of the season jockeying for ping-pong balls.
But these scrappy Celtics have found something out west, while embracing their blend of youth and veteran leadership. And if Boston heeds Stevens' words and takes care of those games it can control over the final 40 tilts of the season, there is a very real chance that Boston could legitimately hang around in playoff contention.
Consider this: The Celtics own the easiest remaining schedule in the league, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Boston's remaining opponents own a .451 winning percentage. Compare that to the teams around them in Brooklyn (11th most difficult, .516); Orlando (16th, .496); Charlotte (17th, .492); Detroit (20th, .483); and Indiana (25th, .474).
What's more, John Hollinger's computerized Playoff Odds currently peg Boston with a 40.9 percent chance at making the playoffs. In fact, the projections as of Tuesday had Boston, Detroit and Charlotte finishing in a three-way tie at 36-46 (with Detroit sneaking in via tie-breaker).
Getting to 36 wins means essentially playing .500 ball over the second half of the season. Impossible? Boston still has a total of five games to play against the East's bottom-dwellers (three games vs. the Knicks; two vs. the 76ers), which will offset some of the more daunting remaining tilts, including three games against Cleveland, along with visits from Atlanta and Golden State.
That means Boston's playoff fate is likely to hinge on a series of games against those teams it's hovering around. Boston plays three games against Miami (including a visit this Sunday in a Super Bowl appetizer), along with two games apiece against Charlotte, Orlando, Indiana and Detroit.
In those games, Boston essentially controls its own fate. Win the majority of those tilts against those teams nearest them in the standings and it's even more likely Boston sneaks into the postseason.
Let's table the discussion about whether it's in Boston's best interest to make the playoffs for further down the road. We'll simply say this for now: Instilling a winning expectation and teaching a young team to be competitive is extremely important for the Celtics moving forward, especially if this young nucleus will serve as the core of the team as it builds.
There is, of course, the looming February trade deadline that, if Boston's roster is stripped of some veterans as other more surefire playoff teams load up, could affect the team's ability to make a sustained run.
And there is a chance that we're simply overreacting to a positive stretch for Boston. But what the Celtics have shown on this road trip is hard to ignore. Boston is winning the close games that were so elusive earlier in the season. Before Thursday's win in Portland, Boston was a mere 5-15 in "clutch" games, where the team was within five points of its opponent in the final five minutes.
The Celtics are 3-1 in such games over their last four. This team is learning how to compete in close games and capitalizing in winnable situations. It's the sort of progress that was sorely lacking earlier in the year and prompted, in part, the decision to trade away the likes of Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green.
Unfathomable as it seemed after the roster overhaul and enduring some of those tough losses earlier in the season, these Celtics can legitimately daydream about the postseason.
They simply must take care of what they can control.