Celtics-Trail Blazers Preview
In the midst of a difficult road swing, Brad Stevens insists he isn't thinking about the playoff race even though his Boston Celtics are fighting for home-court advantage.
The third-year coach certainly doesn't want his club thinking ahead to the intriguing final two games of this trip before visiting what has been one of the NBA's toughest venues recently.
The Celtics could get a boost from the return of starting forward Jae Crowder on Thursday night when they try to deal the Portland Trail Blazers their fourth loss in 20 home games.
Crowder became a key piece to Boston's playoff push before injuring his ankle early in the third quarter against Houston on March 11. Including that game and the eight he's missed, the Celtics have gone 4-5 while averaging 100.7 points. They had scored 111.5 per game in the previous 28, with Crowder averaging 17.4 points in his last 12 full games.
Crowder also leads the team with 1.8 steals per game and is hopeful of returning for this one.
One of four teams in a tight fight between third and sixth in the Eastern Conference, Boston (43-31) should be motivated to finish in the top four after winning 16 of its last 18 at home.
Stevens believes his club will get there if it can remain focused on the present. It has split the first two on this five-game trip following Monday's 114-90 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
"I don't even pay attention to (the standings). We've got so many games left. It's not like we're down to one or two," Stevens told the team's official website. "We'll end up where we end up. That's the way I've always looked at it. Results take care of themselves."
Stevens hopes that's the approach prior to Friday's date with a Golden State team that's riding the NBA's longest home winning streak and Sunday's final showdown with the Kobe Bryant-led Lakers. The Celtics took the Warriors to double overtime in December before falling 124-119.
Portland's 16-3 home record since Jan. 10 is third-best in the West behind Golden State and San Antonio, which both remain unbeaten at home. The Blazers extended their current home winning streak to five after leading by as many as 28 points in Monday's 105-93 win over Sacramento.
Now they're hoping to keep closing the gap on struggling fifth-place Memphis while inching closer to clinching a postseason berth.
"We haven't really talked as a team about where we want to finish, but I feel like our main thing is making the playoffs," said Allen Crabbe, who led the way Monday with 21 points.
The Blazers have been particularly strong offensively at home, averaging 114.4 points in its last 10 games. Leading scorers Damian Lillard (25.4 points per game) and C.J. McCollum (20.7) should be well rested after two days off and sitting out the fourth quarter Monday.
Portland's prolific backcourt, however, was outplayed by Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley in a 116-93 loss at Boston on March 2. Thomas and Bradley teamed for 47 points, while Lillard and McCollum had a combined 37 and shot 13 for 30.
Thomas has averaged an East-leading 26.2 points in 13 games this month, but he's scored just 8.8 per game on 29.3 percent shooting in six career visits to Portland (39-36).
Boston has won two the last two meetings in this series after losing the prior four.
Lillard has shot 35.2 percent in seven career matchups with the Celtics and enters this one looking to avoid being held under 20 points in a season-high fourth consecutive game.