The Celtics are riding high after their 50th win of the season on Sunday. It’s their first 50-win season since the 2010-11 season, as their 50-27 record is good for first place in the Eastern Conference.
This is the deepest into the season the C’s have gone as the first place team in the Eastern Conference since the 2007-08 championship season. Despite all of that, Boston’s sights are really set on win No. 51 - that they hope comes tonight against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the TD Garden (8 p.m., CSNNE).
The Celtics and Cavs expect to compete for the No. 1 seed in the East down the stretch, making tonight’s game that much more important for tie-breaker purposes. Currently, the Cavs hold a 2-1 head-to-head advantage. If recent history is any indication however,, the C’s should be able to pull off a big win, tie the Cavs in the head-to-head matchup, and control their own destiny the rest of the way.
Since these two teams last met back on March 1, they’ve gone in separate directions. Boston took down Cleveland at the TD Garden and has gone 11-5 since, playing some of its best basketball of the season.
The Cavs, meanwhile, have watched their No. 1 seed slip away as they’ve gone 8-10 since the beginning of March, and seem to be panicking a bit, as most recently evidenced by LeBron James’ and Tristan Thompson’s on-court spat in Sunday’s double-OT win over the Pacers.
One can assume that tonight’s matchup will be filled with plenty of emotion on both sides with a playoff atmosphere in the air.
So, how does it play out?
Calling on Horford
We’re on the record in stating that Al Horford is much better than his per-game stats show. But there’s no doubting that the C’s could use him to be a little more aggressive on offense at times – especially against the Cavs. In three games against the Cavs this season, Horford is averaging just 7.5 points per game, almost half of his season average. He is, however, averaging 7.0 assists per game over those three games. Still, Horford needs to bring more scoring to the table – and maybe that means the C’s need to make a concerted effort to get him more shots. Consider also that Cavs power forward Kevin Love is averaging 28.0 points per game in two games vs. Boston this season.
Health a priority
Both Avery Bradley (illness) and Jae Crowder (elbow) are hoping to take the court tonight. Bradley missed the last two games with the stomach bug while Crowder felt some tingling in his elbow in Sunday’s win over the Knicks. The two have been forced to miss their fair share of big games over the last couple seasons, but it’s going to take a lot to keep them out of this one. Crowder, who missed Tuesday’s practice, told reporters on Tuesday that his elbow was “very very tender and sore”, but the good news is the MRI came back clean. You can understand Crowder wanting to go against the Cavs tonight, but it might be smart to rest that elbow a game or two before the playoffs if the C’s feel they can afford to.
Just how important is this game?
It’s important – there’s no denying that. If the C’s can take down the Cavs, they have a manageable remaining schedule (including games against the Hornets and Nets) that could earn them the No. 1 seed in the East. And Boston should aim for that. Often times, talent wins out in the NBA. It’s hard to deny the Cavaliers don’t have more talent at the top with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love. If both teams do meet again in the playoffs, it could be that homecourt advantage that helps even the playing field. Because make no mistake about it – a Cavs team that has figured things out on its way to the Eastern Conference Finals still has to be considered the favorite, No. 1 seed or not.