BOSTON – There have been 1,153 games played in the NBA so far this season. None of them have carried as much weight as the one that is set to take place Wednesday night at TD Garden.
The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers will face off in a battle that could ultimately be the deciding factor on the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
At this moment, Boston sits half a game ahead of Cleveland with a 50-27 record. The Cavs, however, play Tuesday night against the Orlando Magic – the second-worst team in the East – so it’s highly likely that they will enter Wednesday’s showdown with an identical record as the C’s.
If that ends up being the case, both teams will enter the matchup holding control of their own respective destinies. That type of situation brings a lot of pressure upon both squads, but the Celtics are trying to lighten the mental burden by taking an even-keeled approach to the contest.
“It’s pretty big for us at a group,” Jae Crowder acknowledged Tuesday afternoon after practice. “But at the same time we’ve been taking it one game at a time this whole season. This is another game for us to win on our home court. Of course there’s a lot at stake with the standings and whatnot, but at the same time we just gotta take it one game at a time.”
The magnitude of the game hasn’t been discussed among the members of the team, and it doesn’t need to be; the players and coaches are all aware of where they stand in relation to Cleveland in the rankings. Instead, they’re just focused on carrying out their game plan and executing it to the best of their abilities.
“We don’t talk in terms of big games; we talk in terms of next games,” explained C’s coach Brad Stevens. “So I think we’re excited after a couple of days off to get back on the floor. Obviously, any time you’re playing against the defending champions who have been to the finals a couple of years in a row and have some of the level of players that they have, you know you’re going to have to play your best to have a chance to win.”
When it comes to winning, the Celtics have been in much better shape than Cleveland over the last several weeks.
Boston has won 13 of 20 games since the All-Star break, including a 103-99 win over Cleveland on March 1.
The Cavs, meanwhile, have logged a win-loss record of 10-11 since the break, while posting a conference-worst defensive rating of 112.3 points per 100 possessions. By comparison, the last-place Brooklyn Nets have gone 9-12 during that span.
But remember, this is the defending NBA champs we’re talking about. This team has one of the best players in the world in LeBron James, who is capable of taking over any game. So don’t put too much stock into the mediocrity Cleveland has displayed over the last month and a half.
“Every team goes through [a tough stretch] at some point in the season and they’re just happening to go through it right now,” said Isaiah Thomas. “Someone asked me earlier if I think they can figure it out. I think they can. They’ve won a championship and they’ve been to the finals the last two years. They know what it takes to win so, you can’t put that past them.”
The Celtics have proven lately that they know what it takes to win as well. Since January 25, they have posted the best record in the East (24-9), which has allowed them to vault ahead of Cleveland into the top spot in the conference standings.
With five games left in the regular season, it’s still very much up in the air as to who will end up with the top seed in the East, but Wednesday night’s outcome between the C’s and Cavs could certainly end up being the deciding factor.