The Bulls' 113-86 trouncing of the Nets on Monday night came with layered implications. Brooklyn fell to ninth place in the East with the loss, and with that ceded control of its playoff destiny. The Hawks, who have the right to swap first-round picks with the Nets come June, rejoiced. Brooklyn currently owns the 11th-worst record in the NBA. Should it go on to miss the playoffs, the East-leading Hawks will be owed the fine compensation of a sure lottery pick with a chance to vault up further.
Those odds increased on Monday as Brooklyn’s loss ended up clinching a playoff spot for another Eastern Conference team: the apparently unkillable Boston Celtics.
Boston shouldn’t be here. Not after the Celtics entered the season with an unconvincing roster still in the raw, early stages of a rebuild. Not after Rajon Rondo, the team’s best player and captain, was traded away for little immediate return. Not after Brandan Wright, the best player acquired in exchange for Rondo, was later sent to Phoenix for more future considerations. Not after Jeff Green was dealt a month later while only landing Tayshaun Prince and Austin Rivers in terms of usable players. Not after Jared Sullinger, Isaiah Thomas, Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart all missed significant time with injury, leaving a team without any star power also without vital role players.
Yet here the Celtics are. Brad Stevens has coached his team to defy logic at seemingly every turn and in the process surpassed every reasonable expectation of Boston’s season. Much of that success is technical; Stevens is impeccably well prepared for every opponent on the Celtics’ schedule, and his players work with the knowledge of a clear game plan and the aid of their coach’s tactical choices. Yet Stevens also managed to keep an immediate roster undercut by the franchise’s own reasonable, long-term interests playing hard on a nightly basis. It’s hard to sustain high energy when playing more talented teams most every night. It’s even tougher to do so when the capable veterans on the team are being dealt away for spare parts.
There’s no question that the direction of the Celtics organization made the job of Stevens and his players more difficult. They simply made do with working alternatives: Evan Turner’s shift to running the offense, maintenance of the center position by committee and the unlikely contributions of mid-season gets like Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko. It’s a playoff berth earned more by pluck than luck. Boston shouldn’t be here, but over the course of the season left no doubt that it deserves its postseason entry.