<
>

Celtics soar into break thinking playoffs

BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics ran the exact same play in a crunch-time situation three weeks ago in Denver, so when Avery Bradley curled off a high screen in the final seconds of Wednesday's game against the Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta Hawks, he fully expected the ball to be coming his way.

Evan Turner felt bad, but he called an audible. With four seconds to play and Boston trailing by one, Turner drove on Atlanta's DeMarre Carroll, went behind his back to get the ball to his right hand, and -- after nearly losing control -- got into the paint, where he hit a floater over three Hawks with 0.2 seconds remaining to lift the Celtics to an improbable 89-88 triumph at TD Garden.

"I made the move and [Bradley] was like, 'S---, Evan!'" Turner explained inside an energized Boston locker room. "I was like, 'You’re going to hug me in a second.'"

Turner's bucket capped a rally from an 18-point deficit in a game in which Boston shot 32.3 percent (30-for-93) and really had no business even hanging around. It also sent these young Celtics soaring into the All-Star break with players openly lobbying to keep the roster intact despite the approaching trade deadline -- with lots of chatter about a potential run at the playoffs for this scrappy group that has suddenly found a way to win close games.

After Celtics coach Brad Stevens reaffirmed his own desire for "minimal change" to a roster that already has been overhauled by nine trades since the start of the 2014-15 season, his players rallied around the notion that recent progress suggests the Celtics could fight their way into the postseason in a dilapidated Eastern Conference.

“I believe we can make it," guard Marcus Thornton said. "I believe we can make noise, too. So it’s on us to make that happen."

Three weeks ago, this would have seemed preposterous -- and it might still seem that way now. The Celtics were 13-26 after getting blown out by the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 19 to start a season-long six-game West Coast trip, fresh on the heels of four trades in five business days that included sending Jeff Green to Memphis.

But the Celtics won a nail-biter in Portland three days later on another Turner game winner. Then, on the second night of a back-to-back in Denver, it was Bradley hitting that top-of-the-key jumper in the final minute to lift Boston to a second consecutive one-point triumph.

The Celtics are 7-5 in their past 12 tilts and have moved within 1.5 games of the final playoff spot in the East. Most expected this All-Star-less team to continue its roster liquidation in the days leading up to next Thursday's deadline, but Stevens and his players all seemingly pleaded for a chance to build on the continuity and progress displayed during this recent stretch.

Yes, these Celtics are downright pining for a chance to see the Hawks again in an Eastern Conference first-round playoff series in late April.

Stevens made sure to stress that Atlanta did not play to its full potential Wednesday, and noted that Boston trailed for 47 minutes, 59.8 seconds. But you know the second-year coach is savoring a win in which his team also played poorly and yet still found a way to grind it out.

This was the 23rd game of the season in which Boston was within one possession in the final minute. That's the third-highest total in the league. A month ago, the Celtics had a 5-11 mark in those games, sitting 27th in the league with a .313 winning percentage. Boston is 4-3 in those same games in its past 12 contests.

The Celtics have dug themselves a lot of big holes during Stevens' tenure and often have not been able to rally all the way back. They found a way Wednesday against a team that's sending four players to this weekend's All-Star Game in New York.

“I think we’re 20-31, so I’m not ready to anoint us the ‘Comeback Crew’ yet," Stevens said. "But we have had a lot of games where we’ve been down and we’ve come back and been right on the door knocking and not gotten over the hump, and so it was good to finish that off, come back all the way, and win."

Stevens later fielded two questions about the playoffs during his postgame chat with reporters, a topic that's rarely been broached as the Celtics endured the pains of rebuilding since he was hired in July 2013.

"We just want to win the next game and, if that ends up with an opportunity to play beyond [the regular season], that's how that works," Stevens said. "So we talk about it a little bit, but we talk more about what we need to do that given night."

After the second question, when the potential to see the Hawks again was noted, Stevens responded, "That's so far in the distance that -- I don't know -- if that time comes, if we're fortunate enough to be in that position, then we'll be able to look at the film and see what we can do better and see how we can play a lot better than we did the first 47 minutes."

Inside the Celtics' locker room, Turner was fielding queries about his penchant for big shots, and crediting his father for teaching him to never be afraid of a big moment. He recalled his first game winner, during a seventh-grade championship game, in which nerves struck him as he realized the magnitude of the shot. Turner said he sprinted at the hoop after releasing the ball, but it bounced in. Joked Turner, "Some people said I had my eyes closed, but I don’t think so."

Turner said Celtics president Danny Ainge was on the floor with the team at Wednesday's shootaround and was laughing and joking with players. Turner took that as a good sign that maybe the group will stay intact.

Ainge, who has said he would spend part of the All-Star break scouting overseas, has suggested that no deal is imminent and, with Boston not necessarily needing to make any moves before the deadline (unless something came along they couldn't turn down), maybe the Celtics will stand pat or only make minimal changes.

Who knows if the playoffs are truly possible for this team, but you get the sense from guys like Stevens and Turner that this group would simply like a chance to engage in a playoff push and see what happens.

"We'll figure it out depending on what happens in the next week," Stevens said. "I really like these guys. They are a good group of guys. They work hard. You see a lot of growth in a lot of them."