Celtics

Celtics are now (essentially) tied with the Nets in the standings

Sunday's win lifted the Celtics to 4.5 games out of first place in the Eastern Conference.

Celtics standings
Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart (36) points as guard Jaylen Brown (7) walks to the bench. AP Photo/Mary Schwalm

On Jan. 21 — just over three weeks ago — the Celtics continued to slide down the standings when they banged their shins late against the Blazers and lost 109-105, falling to 23-24.

Their fortunes have shifted drastically. On Sunday, with a comfortable 116-83 win over the Magic, the Celtics claimed their seventh win in eight attempts and their fifth win in a row. Their record improved to 30-25. Technically, the Celtics are eighth in the Eastern Conference, but that’s only because they’ve played more games than the Raptors (28-23) and the Nets (29-24). All three teams are 4.5 games behind the first-place Heat.

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That the Celtics and Nets would be tied in the standings on Feb. 6 would have sounded preposterous on Christmas, when the Nets were first in the Eastern Conference and the Celtics fell to 16-17 with a loss to the Bucks. But while the Celtics have won five in a row, the Nets are sinking deeper into a catastrophic and — if they end up trading James Harden — potentially franchise-altering eight-game losing streak.

Celtics coach Ime Udoka said the coaches don’t really talk about the standings with players.

“We’re worried about what we’re doing on a night to night basis, and continue to do what we’ve been doing over the last month and a half,” Udoka said. “But the coaching staff, we look at the games we gave away earlier in the year and what might have been.

“Now it’s about putting that behind us and building on where we’re at now.”

How high the Celtics can climb remains to be seen. The Eastern Conference standings have something of a demarcation buffer in the middle — the Heat, Bulls, Cavaliers, Bucks, and 76ers are all within 1.5 games at the top, while the Celtics, Raptors, and Nets are all tied 4.5 games behind the Heat.

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Per Tankathon, which measures strength of schedule by remaining opponent winning percentage, the Celtics have a middle-of-the-road slate remaining. With games against the Warriors, Grizzlies (twice), Bucks, and 76ers still looming, the Celtics will be tested. But opportunities for easy wins abound as well — three games against the Pistons and two against a Pacers team that will likely be weaker after the trade deadline should all be very winnable.

If the Celtics beat good teams, they have a real opportunity. If they tread water, they could still avoid the play-in game.

Beating bad teams, it turns out, is good for you.

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