BOSTON -- After Monday's win over the Philadelphia 76ers pushed the Boston Celtics' winning streak to five games, coach Brad Stevens patiently answered a question about improved play and increased playoff chatter surrounding his team. Even before he finished, Stevens had begun playing defense against the growing hype.
"We’re going on a tough road trip," Stevens said, "that’s really all I’m thinking about right now."
The good news: Boston has won seven of its past eight, 10 of its past 13 and entered Tuesday's action in a virtual tie for the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Local sports radio has even started to acknowledge the existence of the city's pro basketball team (even if most callers would rather scream about Darrelle Revis leaving the Super Bowl champs or break down the Red Sox' spring training rotation).
The bad news? The road to the playoffs is a bumpy one. There's a four-team logjam for two playoff spots, and the Celtics are staring at a daunting two-game road trip with stops in Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
On the one hand, this is a chance for Boston to showcase the strides it has made and gauge exactly where it stands against two of the league's perennial contenders. If Boston wins even one of the games, locals will be setting up offices to start stumping for Stevens as coach of the year.
On the other, it's also two games that, despite their recent success, will almost certainly feature the Celtics as notable underdogs. While neither Oklahoma City nor San Antonio is playing the sort of dominant ball we've become accustomed to seeing -- both find themselves at the bottom of the playoff ladder in the cutthroat West -- they were still a combined 24 games over .500 entering Tuesday's action.
Still, given how things have played out recently, with the Celtics and Pacers surprisingly boasting the best records in the East since the start of February, projecting how things will play out the rest of the way is near impossible.
Here's what we do know: The Celtics are playing inspired basketball, even with their best individual player, Isaiah Thomas, sidelined. Stevens' biggest challenge over the next month will be getting his team to focus on the next game and ignore the outside noise. Which is how they got to this point in the first place.
Remember that most everyone in Boston wanted the Celtics and their perpetually changing roster to simply tank as it stumbled into late January. Then the Celtics won a couple of close games and Stevens started getting the most out of his guys even before the trade deadline arrived, bringing an influx of talent and (finally!) roster stability (though the Celtics lost Jared Sullinger to a season-ending foot injury soon after).
Soon Boston was posting quality wins against playoff-bound foes such as the Atlanta Hawks and Memphis Grizzlies. For a while, the playoff run still seemed like a dream. But by the end of Monday night, Boston was tied for the seventh seed.
If you believe him, Stevens has done a decent job of blocking out the noise so far. Boston didn't look past lowly Philadelphia on Monday night, a game that was sort of a must-win with the daunting trip on deck. But as the hype machine cranks up, that task will become a bit more difficult.
"I haven’t heard them talk about [the playoff race] once. I’m dead serious," Stevens said. "I mean, we’ve talked about [the standings], we’ve seen the standings, like you see it, but I don’t hear it. I have not heard them say, 'Who's Miami’s playing today?' or 'Who’s Charlotte playing today?' They haven’t talked about it around me -- maybe they are, I don’t know. But I just want to play good basketball, and I think our guys just want to play good basketball."
Added Stevens: "I think, as a result, you have a lot more fun when you spray the ball around the way we’re spraying it around and when you’re competing together and pulling for one another and five guys playing together on a string defensively. And we’re still not as good as we need to be. I think our team that’s out there right now, without Isaiah, can play better. And you know, we’re going to need to play better in the next two games to have a chance to win."
There's a nifty snapshot over at NBA.com of the remaining schedules for teams in each conference. What does the graphic tell us about the four-team race for the final two spots in the East?
A few thoughts:
• Boston's schedule is challenging over the final month, though it eases after these upcoming games against the Thunder and Spurs. Thirteen of Boston's final 14 games are against teams in the East (a visit from old friend Doc Rivers and the Clippers the only other West tilt later this month). The Celtics could be aided if some of the East's top seeds -- teams such as Cleveland and Toronto, against whom Boston plays three of its final four games -- elect to rest bodies in advance of the postseason if the seedings are more concrete.
• Indiana and Boston seemingly have the toughest remaining schedules, but Charlotte isn't far behind. Miami, with its low back-to-back total and the lowest opponent win percentage of the four teams, seemingly has the easiest path. But again, there are too many variables to project exactly how this will play out.
• One crazy thought that a bunch of Boston fans will ponder: With two head-to-head matchups remaining against Milwaukee, the Celtics have an outside chance to catch the Milwaukee Bucks, currently the No. 6-seed. We'd say it's highly unlikely, especially because Milwaukee has a friendly, home-heavy schedule. But Boston fans are already joking about being on #TeamSixSeed.
Our main takeaway from the remaining schedule: Regardless of what happens this week, Boston still controls its own destiny.
It would seem likely its playoff fate will ultimately be determined during a key, eight-day stretch from March 25 to April 1, in which it will play Miami, Charlotte and Indiana. But there's work to be done before that point.
And Stevens must implore his team to do what it's done to get to this far: take it one game at a time and simply see where the road takes them.