WALTHAM, Mass. — Brad Stevens is well aware of the Brooklyn Nets’ recent upswing, having absorbed a convincing defeat at their hands just four days ago. He’s also aware that, at least for now, the Nets are still looking up at another team in the Atlantic Division standings.
The Boston Celtics begin a quirky stretch of their schedule this week with four straight games against the Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls. The home-and-home sets are an infrequent occurrence in the NBA, although the Celtics have three on their schedule this season.
The preparation for such games is somewhat unique, Stevens noted, given that the Celtics will play 96 straight minutes against the same team — twice. But heading into Wednesday’s game, he said, he is focused more on the opponent than the schedule.
“Brooklyn is obviously rising quickly, but Toronto is a really good basketball team,” Stevens said. “Kyle Lowry’s having a great year. The number of plays he makes that go unnoticed are pretty amazing. He gets his hands on a lot of balls. He’s very aggressive. He’s a leader. He’s a contagious guy. You can kind of see it in how they play. They follow his lead.”
The Raptors have won 10 games this season after trailing heading into the fourth quarter, which is a microcosm of their season as a whole. They spent the first month looking up at the Celtics in the struggling Atlantic but surged to the front of the pack with a 19-12 record in December and January. Now they are trying to hold off the Nets, who have closed to within two games of first place and the top-four seed in the Eastern Conference that goes with it.
Regardless of if they win the division, the Raptors are playoff-bound. The Celtics, meanwhile, almost assuredly are not. Yet that won’t keep the Celtics from approaching the next four games with a playoff mindset.
“You kind of take it like a playoff game,” Celtics guard Rajon Rondo said. “You play a team once, then obviously there isn’t much you can change with a couple of days, so you just try to do a better job of executing your offense and defensive scheme.”
Of course, it’s not a playoff game. There won’t be any of those on Causeway Street this spring. If the players wish to treat it like one, though, that’s OK with Stevens. Pretending is just a lot less satisfying than the real thing.
“Hopefully,” Stevens said, “we’re to the point sooner rather than later that we’re playing a lot of them that really matter.”