BOSTON — The champagne and ski goggles must have been packed away before the media was allowed into the locker room on Tuesday, because there was no sign of the celebration for the Celtics’ unlikely rise into first place.
The Celtics’ 108-100 victory over the Bucks gave them first place in the lowly Atlantic Division, sort of, which says a couple of things. Primarily, it says that the division is terrible. But it also says that this team is a lot less terrible than many prognosticators prognosticated prior to the season, and that in a year when almost anything goes, even these Celtics can move into a mathematical lead in the division standings.
“I don’t think we really pay attention to where we’re at, standings-wise,” Jeff Green said. “I think we just take it game by game and try to get better each game. But I think we’re making progress toward getting where we want to be. We still have some kinks we need to work out, but I love it. We’re getting better each day, and I like how we’re correcting our mistakes.”
With the win, the Celtics (8-12) moved past the Raptors by way of their .400 winning percentage. However, the Celtics still trailed the Raptors by a game in the loss column following Toronto’s loss at Golden State on Tuesday night. The loss column is all that really matters in the standings, because wins can almost always be made up this early in the season, but games can’t be un-lost.
That, in part, was why Celtics coach Brad Stevens wasn’t crowing about his first-place ballclub, although he knows where his team fits in the standings.
“I know, but it has no bearing on my life,” Stevens said. “Literally, none. You can take a snapshot of where you stand versus the competition, but it has nothing to do with your preparation on the next opponent, has nothing to do with getting better tomorrow, it just has what’s happened. So, yeah, I know, but I have no reason to know.”
Stevens is a bit like a younger, less-grouchy version of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich in that he dislikes words like “happy” and “satisfied” to describe his sentiments about his team. Anybody would be wary of making too much about a team’s rise to first place given the Celtics’ record, and Stevens is well aware that his squad remains four games below .500 and has plenty of issues to address before it is a top-tier team in actuality, not just as a technicality.
“I’m an optimistic guy, generally, about where we can go,” Stevens said. “But, again, I don’t think it has a lot to do with where we are in the standings versus everybody else. I mean, we’re 8-12. It’s not like we’re lighting the world on fire, here.”
True, the Celtics aren’t blazing any new trails, but what they have done so far is good enough to put them in the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference if the playoffs started now. In a season in which greatness is rare and mediocrity rises to something just below excellence, the Celtics have been less bad than most of their intra-conference competition.
And they have done it by surviving a grueling first month that featured 19 games, six back-to-backs and no more than a day between any games, save for one two-day respite at the end of the month.
Gerald Wallace shared his coach’s mostly tepid contentment with the Celtics’ status.
“Confidence-wise, we’re doing pretty good,” Wallace said. “We still haven’t played a lot of the elite teams, but we have played some. The first month of the season, it went fast. We had a lot of back-to-backs and we’ve had, what, 12 losses? We feel like six or seven of them, we easily could have won and the record could be totally different than it is now. But it’s all about experience. We take the first month in stride.”
That stride hasn’t always been graceful, but it hasn’t needed to be. Even in short, choppy steps, the Celtics have strode out in front of their nearest competition. Considering where many people expected them to be at this point, the Celtics will take it.