BOSTON — The 17 NBA championship banners hang as daily reminders of the watermark for a successful season for the Boston Celtics.
So as much as fourth-year Coach Brad Stevens would like to pat his team on the back for claiming the Eastern Conference’s top seed, the chase for an 18th banner is all the focus he needs as his team prepares to face the eighth-seeded Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs.
The teams split their four regular-season matchups, with each winning two games on their home floor.
Now there are added expectations from Boston, which finished with the East’s best record for the first time since winning its last title in 2008.
“It’s not always easy throughout an 82-game schedule to be at your very best, but these guys are very consistent,” Stevens said. “So that’s a real positive. But we’ll talk about what was accomplished later.”
The Celtics have lost in the first round the last two seasons, including a 4-2 series loss to Atlanta last year. Now they’re hoping one of their biggest tormenters in that series – offseason pickup Al Horford – will be the piece that helps them trigger a deep run.
A concussion in early November slowed Horford for some this season, factoring into declines in both his scoring (14 ppg) and rebounding (6.8 rpg) averages.
Still, he says, his preseason expectations have been exceeded. Aside from becoming probably the Celtics’ best passer on offense, his leadership on the floor has been invaluable, Stevens said.
“That’s what you want to do,” Horford said. “You want to come and win and be in positions to do some special things.”
Horford said one of main reasons he chose Boston was the chance to play alongside point guard Isaiah Thomas. Though injuries limited their development together on the court, having Horford in the middle clearly elevated Thomas’ game this season. His average of 28.9 points per game this season tied John Havlicek (1970-71) for second place on the Celtics’ franchise leaderboard.
“We’re a little more confident, we are the No. 1 seed,” Thomas said. “We’ve got home-court advantage, we’ve just got to protect it. We’re ready, though.”
Jimmy Butler figures to see quite a bit of Thomas. And to that, the Bulls’ superstar says: Bring it on.
“I’m going to make it tough for him, for anyone I guard,” he said. “But not just me. It’s going to be a team effort.”
One of the league’s top two-way players and Chicago’s best perimeter defender, Butler is the Bulls’ best option to stick with the 5-foot-9 Thomas – whether he’s driving the lane or launching one of his lethal jumpers. Asking Rajon Rondo or Dwyane Wade to do that would be a bit much.
Butler is used to guarding the other team’s best perimeter player and carrying the load on offense. Doing it in a best-of-seven series might wear him down.
Even so, expect to see Butler on Thomas down the stretch in close games. The Bulls might even gamble and go with that matchup early on, hoping it throws the Celtics out of sync and that no one else gets hot.
“You know what to expect from Isaiah, know what you can expect from other guys,” Butler said.
“But when somebody comes out of nowhere and hits you with 20 or 30 points, now what? Now they’ve got a confidence that Isaiah is going to have no matter what, so you’ve got to lock in on everybody.”
The series is also a big one for the Bulls on several fronts.
Second-year Chicago coach Fred Hoiberg is making his playoff debut, while Wade is playing in his first postseason since leaving Miami.