One saving grace in this NBA age of management-engineered tanking is that players on mediocre Eastern Conference teams still can believe.

That’s how the Celtics have catapulted themselves into the All-Star break following Wednesday’s final-shot victory over 43-11 Atlanta, which has the second-best record in the NBA and is tops in the conference.

The playoff conversation increases for the Celtics. They are one loss out of the No. 8 and No. 7 playoff seeds, currently held by slumping Miami (22-30) and Charlotte (22-30), with Brooklyn (21-31) also a half-game ahead of the Celtics (20-31).

The players, particularly Jared Sullinger, defiantly have insisted the Celtics are made of postseason timber, and feel vindicated. They now can smirk at the nonbelievers.

“It’s always been a conversation, since Day 1,” said Marcus Thornton. “I believe we can make it, and I believe we can make noise, too.”

Evan Turner, who had the winning shot for the Celtics, looks at another number. The Celtics are 7-5 over their last 12 games.

“Judging from the 10 or 11 (leads) we (blew) prior to this, and the advances we’ve made as a team already, it’s definitely a possibility as long as we stay consistent,” he said. “There’s three or four teams in the mix, but we can give ourselves the best opportunity by not shooting ourselves in the foot.”

That’s a tall order for a Celtics team that has yet to play 48 consistent minutes. On Wednesday night they were forced to come back from an 18-point deficit thanks to some particularly uninspired first-half play.

Coach Brad Stevens went so far as to suggest the Hawks, in their fourth straight road game, had an off-night.

Stevens has received his share of false starts – games that mistakenly indicated something was turning around. But Wednesday’s win gives the Celtics coach fresh material.

“It’s all relative. I’ve been a part of teams that won a lot of games in a row, and as a coach you’re scared to death of the next game,” said Stevens. “You don’t even think about the win before. The players may feel it. I don’t feel it as much. What it does is give you a little more hope in close games and close situations.”

For now, though, Stevens wants a rested team as well as one that stays fit over the next eight days.

By the time the Celtics reconvene for a game in Sacramento on Feb. 20, perhaps what he’ll see is physical and mental freshness. Then, as the Celtics play subsequent road games against the Lakers and Suns, Stevens may start to think about the playoffs as something real.

“You need some (getting away and relaxing),” he said. “That’s why there’s an extension (of the All-Star break) this year across the NBA. The other part is they’re expected to return fresh and ready to roll (for next Wednesday’s practice in Sacramento).

“For some guys it’s different,” said Stevens. “Guys who have played a lot of minutes may be able to take a couple of days and need to. Other guys need to be more strict in their workouts. We send them with suggestions, but that’s up to them. This is their time, and I have confidence that they’ll use it appropriately.”

A significant date is Feb. 19, the deadline for trading. Stevens has been hamstrung by constant turnover in his lineup. Once the deadline passes, perhaps he can truly mold the Celtics rotation.

“We’ve had the same team for three weeks, so that’s been helpful,” he said. “Starting with a couple of those close wins out west and a solid week last week, this team is progressing. It’s fun to see. It’s hard to talk about this team in terms of a whole year thing with us right now. It’s more the individuals who have been here have done a good job of getting better and going in the right direction.”

But in the meantime, Stevens has marching orders of his own this weekend.

“I’m going to my sister-in-law’s wedding in Cleveland,” he said. “It is beautiful this time of year there. That will be my first leg of my West Coast trip. I do what they both tell me to do, and certainly my wife.”

HALL OF FAME: Kentucky Coach John Calipari, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and four-time Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo are among the finalists for this year’s Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class.

Former NBA stars Tim Hardaway, Spencer Haywood and Jo Jo White also were chosen as finalists Saturday. They join former WNBA star Lisa Leslie, longtime referee Dick Bavetta, and two-time NBA Coach of the Year Bill Fitch among the class of 2015 hopefuls.

Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan and high school coaches Robert Hughes and Lita Andrews rounded out the 12 finalists.

The class will be announced at an April 6 press conference before the NCAA championship game, when Calipari’s team might be playing. The top-ranked Wildcats are 25-0 and hoping to give him a second national title.

NBA PLAYERS ASSOCIATION: LeBron James is ready to serve his peers.

Unanimously elected as first vice president of the NBA Players Association on Friday, James said that upcoming talks with the league over revenue sharing prompted him to take office. The players and owners can opt out of the collective bargaining agreement following the 2016-17 season, when they could decide how to best divide some of the money set to flow in from a $24 billion TV deal.

James will have a seat during any talks alongside Clippers All-Star guard Chris Paul, the union’s president and one of his closest friends.

ALL-STAR GAME: Dirk Nowitzki had it all planned out: a relaxing vacation on a warm beach, his family by his side and a weeklong break from basketball. Then he got the news.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver named Nowitzki an All-Star replacement for injured New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis late Wednesday night. The Dallas forward put away his swimsuit for a coat and shuttled up to chilly New York for his 13th All-Star appearance.