Is there a team in the Eastern Conference that can catch the Celtics?


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BOSTON — The suspense could be over already.

The Boston Celtics (45-12) enter Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers with a 7.5-game lead in the Eastern Conference. If they finish the regular season at their current pace, it would be mathematically impossible for any team to catch them. If they continue playing the way they have played over the first two-thirds of the regular season, they will run away as the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference.

Barring a sharp twist, there should be little seeding drama over the Celtics’ final 25 regular-season games. The size of their cushion could promote some complacency, but Derrick White hopes his team can still find ways to use the rest of the schedule productively.

“I don’t wanna say we’re at the highest point,” White said Monday after practice. “We think we can just keep getting better. We know what the end goal is but we got 25 more games to keep playing our best basketball. We just take each opportunity as a challenge and every time we go out there we’re competing and having fun doing what we do.”

The Celtics have largely avoided ruts this season. They have only lost consecutive games once. Their worst record in a calendar month so far was 11-5 in January. They have been the NBA’s most consistent team.

Regardless of the standings, head coach Joe Mazzulla wants his team to hold onto that. He said he wants the Celtics to approach this stretch with the right mindset. He wants them to transition the coaching staff’s lessons from the film session to the court. And he wants them to understand that what happens now could matter later.

“Finding a way to execute in the present while thinking of the end in mind,” Mazzulla said. “Being able to live in both of those spaces at the same time. So our guys have done a really good job of doing (it), but like hey, here’s a situation that’s going to come up tonight, but it could come up in situations X, Y and Z. So just having a purpose towards that. Just not letting go of the rope of their consistency and the things that we’ve been doing, which is well-balanced basketball, for the most part.”

The Celtics have led the Eastern Conference for all but six days this season. They have held the top spot for 104 straight days since regaining it from the 76ers on Nov. 14. Anything can happen in the NBA, but it would realistically take a hot streak from a challenger plus the worst stretch of Boston’s season for another team to take over the No. 1 spot. Increasing the likelihood of the Celtics staying in first place, they have the 28th-toughest remaining strength of schedule, according to Their remaining opponents entered Monday with a combined winning percentage of .458.

The conference could be just about wrapped up, but the Celtics hope to keep in mind that they have something bigger to work toward. With a current eight-game winning streak, they seem to be doing that so far.

“I think we’re just doing a good job of just improving on stuff that we’ve been talking about,” White said. “We’re not satisfied with anything, so we just got to keep getting better and I think we’ve done a good job of that so far.”

Last season, the Celtics struggled shortly after the All-Star break. After winning two straight games then, they dropped four of their next five including a couple of memorable defeats. Three days after coughing up a 28-point lead against the Brooklyn Nets, the Celtics lost a 14-point fourth-quarter lead against the Cleveland Cavaliers in a game most well-known for Grant Williams’ final-second missed free throws.

What has Mazzulla done to avoid a similar letdown?

“That question, it’s not about what I’ve done, it’s about the environment that we’ve created,” Mazzulla said. “So when you have a bunch of guys like we do, I thought the way we went into the break was impressive, having a close win versus Brooklyn and doing what we did the night after (while winning by 50 points on) the second night of a back-to-back.

“But it’s everyone’s job, it’s not just mine, and so it’s the guys showing up every day, it’s taking advantage of the practice time, it’s being intentional about preparation, whether we have a shootaround or whether we have long film session, so it’s not really on me. It’s on all of us to make sure we’re ready to go all the time.”

Blake Griffin was loved by his Celtics teammates. (Matt Stone / Boston Herald via Getty Images)

Griffin’s future in focus

Was a Blake Griffin return ever a possibility for the Celtics? During a recent appearance on the podcast Pardon My Take, Payton Pritchard and White said some players on the team have begged their beloved former teammate to come back for another season. So far, at least, Griffin has not signed with any team.

Though Mazzulla said he has spoken to Griffin periodically since this summer, he said he no longer asks the big man about his basketball future. Mazzulla said Griffin made it clear at the end of last season that he would prioritize his family and children.

“I talked to him a little bit in the offseason, I talked to him I think one or two times when we were in L.A., but when he told me at the end of last season that his family was the most important thing, I stopped talking to him about it,” Mazzulla said. “Because I know what it’s like to be away from your kids and be away from your family, so he was always going to make the decision that was best for him.”

The Celtics still have one open roster spot. Shortly after the trade deadline, president of basketball operations Brad Stevens said he would patiently examine options to bolster his team’s depth but did not expect to find a rotation player in the slot.

It’s no surprise that Griffin’s former teammates wanted him back. During his lone season in Boston, he quickly became a locker-room favorite with his unselfish play and good sense of humor.

“He’s just a great guy, the stuff he was doing in the locker room off the court,” White said. “Honestly, on the court, great player, he could do so many different things for us. Off the court, he was just hilarious, a fun guy to be around.”

White said he believes Griffin is enjoying living life and spending time with his family. If the six-time All-Star wants to play again, White would welcome a reunion in Boston.

“Obviously, Blake’s probably one of the best teammates all of us has ever had,” White said. “So any time you have him around, it’s great. But, I mean, I feel like it’s his decision and we respect that, but we all just love having him around.”

(Top photo: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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