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How the Celtics Clinched an Improbable Playoff Berth

With a 95-93 victory over the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night, the Boston Celtics won their fifth straight game and secured the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference standings, assuring the team a first-round playoff date with the seemingly championship-bound Cleveland Cavaliers. While no one questions that the Celtics are unlikely to pose any kind of a threat to the Cavs, they’re one of the surprises of the NBA’s regular season, even in spite of the fact that they’re part of an Eastern Conference that features it’s fair share of weak teams, and an Atlantic Division that the Raptors have been running away with since the start of the season.

It was clear early on in the year that the Celtics were a team in rebuild mode, with rookie guard Marcus Smart representing the future alongside sophomore forward Kelly Olynyk and a crew of other young players. With a coach alongside them that was only going into his second season in the NBA himself in Brad Stevens, it seemed that any talk of the Celtics competing in the playoffs was probably still two or three years away. Fortunately for Smart, Olynyk, Stevens and the rest of the team, the future is apparently now.

It all started when general manager Danny Ainge and the powers that be decided it was time to deal the team’s franchise player, point guard Rajon Rondo. The team sealed the deal on Rondo’s days as the leader of the Celtics in mid-December, when he was sent to the Dallas Mavericks along with center Dwight Powell in exchange for Jameer Nelson, Jae Crowder, Brandan Wright, two draft picks and a trade exception.

At the time it was viewed as a deal that would solidify the Mavs’ chances of winning an NBA title, and from the standpoint of the Celtics, the deal was supposed to be a white flag, throwing in the towel on a season and chalking it up as one geared towards sacrificing the present in favor of the future.

In reality that’s exactly what it is. And yet, the Celtics find themselves preparing for a date with the Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena this weekend. (This also comes after trading Jeff Green.) That fact alone has to make people wonder if perhaps Rondo should have been dealt sooner, maybe even alongside the exits of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that playing in a weak division isn’t the only reason the Celtics were able to pull off their improbable push to the postseason, which has included a post-All-Star break record of 19-11. For one thing, Smart has really come into his own. Stevens has been letting him see the occasional 40-minute plateau in terms of playing time, and he’s capitalizing, hitting big shots like he did 11 days ago in Toronto while playing tenacious defense to boot.

A deal for point guard Isaiah Thomas has also provided a boost. Thomas is putting up 19.0 points per game in a Celtics uniform, and he’s one of the top candidates for the Sixth Man of the Year award. The diminutive point guard gives Boston another capable ball handler to go along with Smart, Avery Bradley and Evan Turner, giving Stevens options in the backcourt.

As for Olynyk, he’s a big man who can shoot the three pointer. Yes, his 7-foot frame is a bit wider than a guy like the Mavs’ Dirk Nowitzki, so his style and shooting form may not look as fluid, but the Canadian is looking like he may be able to repeat in the NBA what he had previously done as a college player in the NCAA. Work really hard, find his game and prove people wrong while playing at a level a few notches above what most scouts, coaches or even fans for that matter would have pegged him on.

Tyler Zeller, Brandon Bass and a now healthy Jared Sullinger join Olynyk to form a solid but unspectacular frontcourt. None of these guys are star players, but they’ve all provided meaningful contributions. Meanwhile, Crowder has provided a spark at small forward.

Certainly nobody expects Boston to challenge Cleveland in the opening round of the playoffs, but either way, one thing is certain: The future in Boston has already arrived, even if it’s two years earlier than the rest of the NBA expected.

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