Celtics bask in national spotlight, brace for Warriors

BOSTON -- Boston Celtics swingman Evan Turner found himself alone on the breakaway after picking the pocket of his high school rival Derrick Rose on Wednesday night and felt the eyes of a national TV audience upon him. He slowed just enough to time his steps, then delivered a 360-degree slam dunk that had teammates racing off the bench to greet him after the Chicago Bulls called timeout.

"I just wanted to show ESPN we appreciate [the broadcast]," Turner said after Boston's 105-100 triumph at TD Garden. "We got highlights here. Turner Vinsanity, you know what I’m saying?"

The Celtics were bumped from their only scheduled national TV appearance last season (though ESPN later picked up a Boston-Detroit matchup). Fair or not, these Celtics have slipped off the NBA radar for much of the past three seasons, and the only way to bring those eyeballs back is to win games.

Last year's second-half surge to the playoffs helped the Celtics land seven scheduled national TV appearances this season. Each game represents a chance to show the progress that has helped Boston elevate to third in the NBA in defensive rating and has this team sitting at 13-9 overall, having rebounded from a 1-3 start.

ESPN's Basketball Power Index ranks Boston as the No. 4 team in the league and the top squad in the East. Many dismiss it as an analytics anomaly for a team that's had an odd propensity to win big this season (owning an average margin of victory of 16.1 points). But there's hope in Boston that real progress is being made.

"We just want to keep playing well and keep getting better and make the most of our opportunity," said Turner. "Right now, everybody throughout the whole NBA, except for a couple teams, are in one big bunch. Right now, we’re just trying to break out the bunch, record-wise, and keep up the momentum and play well."

While it was an off-limits topic before Wednesday's visit from the Bulls, the Celtics know there's a golden opportunity afforded later this week when the Golden State Warriors bring their 23-0 record to Boston.

The Celtics tried their best to downplay the matchup, but they couldn't hide their excitement over getting a shot at taking down the league's Goliath.

As Isaiah Thomas said: "They’re the talk of the NBA. We’re the next game, and hopefully we can get one."

Thomas endured a rare scoreless first half against Chicago, but scored all of his team-high 20 points after the intermission. Boston put eight players in double figures, and that highlights the sort of all-hands-on-deck effort this team needs in order to thrive.

Fans around Boston have been buzzing about the Warriors' visit since Golden State ensured its unblemished record would be intact with Tuesday's win over the Indiana Pacers. The Warriors are already in town in advance of Friday's game and autograph-seekers are out in full force searching the Boston streets for the defending champs.

Asked how he would prevent his team from looking ahead before Wednesday's game, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, "If we look ahead, we’ll get pounded. ... You play the game in front of you, you play the possession in front of you. If you look ahead or behind, you’re dead."

The Celtics started a bit slow Wednesday but took control in the second half and then fended off the Bulls at the finish line. Boston watched David Lee put up 12 points, delivering some key early fourth-quarter baskets after missing the last two games due to a right heel injury. And no one knows better than Lee the tall task that Boston faces against Golden State.

"I see a team that’s, more than anything, just all on the same page and that’s what’s really evident," Lee said of the squad that he helped win a title last season. "And of course No. 30 [Stephen Curry] is doing what he’s doing and that’s propelling the whole situation. But even when guys like [Andrew] Bogut or Harrison [Barnes] or whoever has been out, the other guys fill in and really play well. And, more than anything, I just feel like the confidence level is high and they’re all on the same pulling in the same direction. I think that’s something every team can learn from."

His teammates will be bombarded with questions about the Warriors during the 48-hour ramp up to Friday's game. Make no mistake, the Celtics love that Boston is the center of the NBA universe for a couple days. Even after the Warriors shuffle out, Cleveland shuffles into TD Garden on Tuesday for Boston's first matchup with the team that swept it from the playoffs last season.

"Honestly, I really don’t think past each game," said Turner. "We hadn’t really spoke on [Golden State]. So [Thursday] we’ll start focusing on it. No, seriously, there hasn’t been like a group discussion about it or anything like that. It’ll be a fun game, we had [a big lead on] them a couple games last year where we competed well versus them. We’re going to try to play well and keep getting better. And when the time comes, we’ll worry about it."

Is it really just one game, though?

"It’s really just one game, honestly," said Turner. "I mean, if I was 22 maybe it’d be a big game. I’m 27. You know what I’m saying? I’m ancient, so basically I’ve seen a lot of games. This one will just be one of out of however many. Once again, it’s a great opportunity, as you guys already may know, and they play great. Any time you play the defending champs, you want to have an opportunity to play great."

The Celtics don't want the hype of Friday's matchup to get out of control.

“Everybody in the league’s talking about Golden State. And there’s a lot of times where you get a tweet, it’ll go, 'Hey Sully, good luck on Friday,'" said Jared Sullinger. "I’m like, we play on Wednesday. In this league if you overlook anybody, you’re going to come up short. And I’m not talking about a four- or five-point loss. I’m talking about a 25-point loss if you’re looking ahead. I thought we did a tremendous job of focusing on the game in front of us. We’ve been doing that all year.

"And on Friday we’re going to take it as another game. I know they’re coming in with a hot streak. They’re undefeated. But we can’t look at it as a Super Bowl. We’ve got to look at it as, it’s another game, another chance to get another win, and carry ourselves like that. Because if we get over there and try to get too excited, they’re just going to blow us out."