Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens often references a desire for his team to control all the variables that are within his team's ability to influence. His philosophy is simple: There are things in basketball that you simply can't control -- a bad call, an opponent making a tough shot, the outcome of another game. But Stevens often emphasizes that his team must be diligent with what it can control -- whether that's defensive intensity, taking care of the basketball, or offensive execution.
It's as simple as this: With five games to play, currently eighth-seeded Boston owns a one-game advantage over both the Heat and Pacers. If the Celtics win their final five games -- or simply keep pace with whichever of their closest Eastern Conference rivals finish strongest -- Boston is guaranteed a trip back to the NBA postseason after just a one-year absence while rebuilding on the fly.
That Boston has that control at this point of the season is truly astounding. The Celtics are 22-16 since Jan. 22 and the aftermath of the Jeff Green trade (having dealt away Rajon Rondo the month before). Boston is 10-6 over the past month, brushing itself off after a rough patch against some Western Conference juggernauts and, mostly, taking care of business with its backs against the playoff wall recently.
That included Saturday night's thriller in Toronto in which Stevens' clipboard and Marcus Smart's buzzer-beater lifted Boston to a one-point triumph over the Raptors. When both the Brooklyn Nets and Heat lost that night, Boston shuffled back into the eighth spot. And they'll stay in playoff position until at least Wednesday night when the Celtics visit the Detroit Pistons in their first national TV game of the season (ESPN broadcast).
Sure, a dilapidated Eastern Conference and the struggles of the teams around it in the playoff hunt has contributed mightily to Boston's ability to make this playoff push. But the Celtics have also played some inspired basketball lately, showing both some incredible resiliency and an ability to win close games -- two areas of particular weakness during last year's lottery season.
There's still work to be done to secure a playoff berth. Boston's five remaining games feature four playoff-bound opponents, including a home-and-home series with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Boston will cross its fingers and hope that LeBron James & Co., with the second seed essentially in hand, elect to rest bodies when the teams meet twice next weekend. Alas, that's out of their control.
For a short time this week, Boston didn't have control of its postseason opportunity. It needed the Nets or Heat to stumble. They did, now the Celtics must capitalize.
Stevens keeps coming back to the idea of control. For example:
While discussing the team's playoff quest recently: "We have to stay in the moment," Stevens said. "As a coach, that's what you're trying to do, trying to stay in the moment. Coach the next game, prepare the right way, control what you can, and move on."
On making defense his team's primary focus late in the season: "I think that's a good emphasis to have, because you're focused only on what you can control and nothing else."
On success in March during his time at Butler: "The best teams -- the teams that ended up going as far as the Final Four -- were laser focused. They never missed something they could control ever. And that's what you look at out there."
Tiebreakers in focus
The NBA's tiebreaking procedures are documented here. This is the main takeaway at this juncture (with eyes on head-to-head matchups; let's worry about three-way tiebreakers down the road if they come into play):
• Boston owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Brooklyn (won season series, 3-1)
• Miami owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Boston (won season series, 3-1)
• Boston owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Indiana (won season series, 3-1)
• Boston and Charlotte split the head-to-head series (2-2); the next tiebreaker is conference record (Boston is currently 23-24; Charlotte is 25-22)
Asked about tiebreakers recently, Stevens noted, "I don't care about the tiebreaker stuff. I don't even want to get my mind wrapped up in all the five-way tie-breakers and all that stuff. I don't really pay attention to -- I'll pay attention to it in a general sense, but I couldn't tell you where each team stands right now. I know we're all in the mix and none of us are separating ourselves. And my focus is more on us, just trying to play good basketball. We've talked about this before with the Boston media a lot, we have to play really well to win. And that's gotta be our focus."
Then came the "C" word again.
"We can't get caught up in anything we can't control," Stevens said.