You hear a lot of talk these days about how the Celtics have the cushiest of cushy schedules to close out the season, a schedule that’s chock full of teams that have spent the bulk of this season getting their heads beaten in.
Of the Celtics’ 13 remaining games, nine are against teams at .500 or worse.
Still, for folks like me who have watched a lot of these bad basketball teams play this season, which includes way more Sixers basketball than any human should consume, there’s a narrative surrounding most of them that’s undeniable.
The way they are playing now is better – a lot better in the case of the Philadelphia 76ers – than their pitiful record might suggest.
While the Celtics will be favored to beat Philadelphia this afternoon (Vegas has the C’s as a five-point choice), would anyone outside of New England be surprised if the Sixers came away with the victory?
And despite Philly’s struggles, they play Boston about as tough as any team in the league.
The Celtics has won each of their three games this season against the Sixers, but only by a total of 13 points which speaks to how the games between these two has been closer than Boston certainly would want.
And unlike previous matchups, in which the Sixers seemed to be more about developing players than doing what was necessary to win, it’s clear that Philadelphia isn’t satisfied with just competing with teams anymore.
Dare we say it, the Sixers are (gulp)...trying to win games?
Philadelphia is coming off a 116-74 win over Dallas, one of the franchise’s most lopsided wins in nearly a decade.
And they’ve taken teams that - on paper - they are overwhelmingly overmatched against, down to the wire, evident by a 106-104 loss at Golden State earlier this month.
“You've got to give this team a lot of credit," Golden State’s Draymond Green said recently. "They're going to be really, really, really good. I mean, they're missing [Joel] Embiid and Ben Simmons and they're really on their way."
Embiid, whose season was shut down after just 31 games (he missed each of the two previous seasons entirely due to injuries), was a dominant force when healthy. He led the Sixers with 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots per game.
Ben Simmons, taken with the No. 1 overall pick by the Sixers last June, has not played in a single game this season due to injuries but, he too, is a player with promise.
Their absences have helped fellow Sixers rookie Dario Saric emerge not only as a key cog in Philadelphia’s growth, but also one of the front-runners for the NBA’s rookie of the year award, along with Embiid.
Still, as much improvement as we’ve seen in Philadelphia, the Celtics have shown they too are making progress towards being more than just one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference.
With Isaiah Thomas (knee) out, his absence has allowed others an opportunity to thrive.
Jae Crowder is coming off his seventh double-double of the season in Boston’s 98-95 win at Brooklyn on Friday. He had season-highs in scoring (24 points) and rebounding (12) as the Celtics (44-25) won their third straight with their East-leading 21st road victory of the season.
That means for the first time under fourth-year coach Brad Stevens, the Celtics will have a winning record away from the TD Garden.
When asked by CSN’s Abby Chin about the difference playing without Thomas, Crowder responded, “More shot opportunities; for real, seriously.”
This season, Crowder averages 9.8 field goal attempts per game. In the five games Boston has played without Thomas, his field goal attempts rises to 10.6.
More telling is how Crowder, a 13.5 points per game scorer this season, increases his scoring output to 16.2 points per game sans Thomas, while shooting 50.9 percent from the field.
With Thomas out, Crowder and several other Celtics will surely be looked upon to step their game up.
Despite Philly’s record, their play of late and the confidence they have with wins in two of their past three games, makes today’s matchup a game that Boston should win, but it will not be easy.
CHICAGO – Gerald Green was inserted in the Boston Celtics' starting lineup to help create better spacing for his teammates, but still being a viable option they could turn to, you know, just in case they needed a basket here and there.
Green wasn’t just a warm body moving about on the floor.
He was the one starter – not Isaiah Thomas, not Al Horford, not Avery Bradley or Jae Crowder – whose play set the tone in Boston’s 104-95 Game 4 win over Chicago.
Green finished with 18 points, including a jacuzzi-hot start in which he had 16 points in the first half as Boston's lead surged to as much as 20 points.
With the win, Boston has tied the best-of-seven series at two games apiece and regained home court advantage in this series.
Isaiah Thomas led all Celtics with 33 points along with seven assists. Al Horford had a double-double of 15 points and 12 rebounds along with four assists.
Meanwhile the Bulls were led by Jimmy Butler’s 33 points with Dwyane Wade chipping in with 11 points and six rebounds.
After Chicago came within 81-76, Thomas scored five straight that led to a Bulls time-out with 9:01 to play and Boston back on top by double digits (86-76).
Chicago continued to battle back, but every Bulls surge was met by an even stronger one by Boston.
After a solid first half by Boston, the Bulls opened the third quarter with a 7-2 run to come within 59-53. But a dunk by Green followed by a driving lay-up by Jae Crowder made it a double-digit game again.
The momentum was short-lived for the Celtics as the Bulls continued to chip away at their lead which stood at 53-58 following a 3-pointer by Isaiah Canaan with 7:41 to play in the quarter.
Prior to his 3-ball, Canaan drew an offensive foul against Isaiah Thomas which gave the Celtics’ best player four personal fouls for the game.
Chicago continued to close the gap, and eventually went ahead 65-63 on a lay-up by Robin Lopez.
Thomas, who was on the bench due to foul trouble, returned to the floor and scored four straight to put the Celtics back on top 67-65 which led to a time-out by the Bulls with 3:39 to play in the third quarter.
Boston would score 12 straight to lead 75-65 before the third quarter ended with the Celtics ahead 79-70.
The down-to-the-wire finish was very different from how the game started.
Boston began tonight’s Game 4 matchup against Chicago with a 14-4 run, similar to what they did in Game 3. And just like Game 3, Boston continued to pull ahead in the first quarter which ended with the Celtics ahead 30-18.
But there was a distinct difference in Game 4.
Butler, who had 14 points on 7-for-21 shooting in Game 3, was noticeably more aggressive looking for his shot. And it resulted in him getting to line a lot. In fact, he had more free throw attempts in the first quarter (8) than the entire Celtics team (7). For the game, Butler had 23 free throw attempts which ranks third all-time among Celtics opponents in the playoffs.
But it didn’t matter.
Because even though Boston wasn’t getting to the line, they were getting essentially whatever else they wanted to offensively.
In the first quarter, they shot better than 50 percent from the field as part of a commanding start.
The second quarter saw Boston’s control of the game remain strong as the Celtics pulled ahead by as many as 20 points on multiple occasions.
And the intensity of the game really picked up after Marcus Smart and Butler got into a little dust-up in the second quarter that led to both players being whistled for technical fouls.
The incident fired up the Bulls initially, but not enough to where Boston’s lead in the first half was seriously threatened.
Gerald Green missed his shot, so he went back for more.
The Boston Celtics veteran grabbed the rebound of his missed 3-pointer, and streaked toward the hoop. Dwyane Wade stepped in to defend Green, but it was too late.
Green elevated and collided with Wade, but still managed to hammer in a massive dunk.
Green started Game 4 for the second straight game, and finished with 18 points and seven rebounds. With all of his dunks, his field goal percentage was efficient at 53.8 percent. He was also 4 of 9 from behind the the 3-point line.
Watch his huge dunk in the tweet below or the video above.