Celtics At The Break: Recent Surge Has Overachieving C’s Eyeing Next Step

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Celtics guard Marcus Smart

Photo via Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart (36) reacts after his basket and being fouled by the Los Angeles Clippers in the second half at TD Garden. Celtics defeated the Clippers in overtime 139-134.

BOSTON — After last season’s strong finish and surprise NBA playoffs appearance, the Celtics faced heightened expectations entering the 2015-16 season.

But unless you’re in Boston’s locker room, it’s safe to say you didn’t see this coming.

“This” is a Celtics team that owns the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, eighth-best in all of basketball. A .500 team less than a month ago, Boston remarkably won 10 of its final 12 games before the All-Star break, the latest coming in a thrilling 139-134 overtime victory over the über-talented Los Angeles Clippers.

Such success after two sub-.500 seasons should be cause for brimming optimism, but there’s still work to be done. Just ask third-year head coach Brad Stevens, who had this to say after Sunday’s win over the Kings:

“Nobody is in there doing cartwheels. You move on to what’s next and play as well as you can.”

It behooves Stevens to keep a level head amid the ups and downs of an NBA season, but his mindset is a good one to adopt. The Celtics are playing well, sure, but the reality is that this team as it’s currently constructed still falls short of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East and the juggernauts that are the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs in the West.

The fact that we’re even mentioning the Celtics in such terms is a sign of how far Boston has come from winning just 25 games two seasons ago. Yet it also puts the pressure on Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, who has stockpiled enough draft picks and young talent to potentially lure a big-name player.

Boston doesn’t play another game before the Feb. 18 trade deadline, so Ainge must decide if he’s willing to mortgage the future to bring in a key piece — Atlanta Hawks forward Al Horford has been mentioned in the rumor mill — that possibly could lift the Celtics even higher in the present.

“I trust our front office to make the right recommendations and the right calls to help our team,” Stevens said after Wednesday’s win. “I think it would have to be something unique to continue to help our team. I think that we’ve got a lot of future flexibility, and we know that.”

There’s a lot to like about this Celtics team: Isaiah Thomas has earned his All-Star label and then some, and he and his teammates play with consistent grit and tenacity that allows them to beat clubs with more talented players. With a fairly balanced schedule remaining — 14 of Boston’s remaining 27 games are at home — the C’s have an excellent shot at entering the playoffs as a top-four seed.

When your team has won 17 championships in its storied history, however, the bar is set a bit higher. If Ainge can find a way to bolster this roster without hurting its undeniable chemistry, he could take the C’s to the next level.

Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images

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