Back in the Business of Taking Care of Business

MIAMI – The first step toward earning a top seed in the postseason is taken by wining the games you’re supposed to win during the regular season.

The Boston Celtics struggled in that department early on in 2016-17, but it appears that they have found their way.

Boston is now 5-2 during its last seven games after Monday night’s 112-104 victory over the Heat in Miami. During that stretch, it took down every team it was supposed to upend, a list that now includes Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, Brooklyn and Miami. Its only two blemishes were to title contenders Golden State and San Antonio, who are a combined 30-5 on the season entering Wednesday.

It was not too long ago that the Celtics learned first-hand just how important should-win games that turn into shocking losses can become. On the final day of the 2015-16 regular season, Boston finished in a four-way tie with Miami, Atlanta and Charlotte for the third seed in the Eastern Conference with a 48-34 record.

One more win against the likes of Brooklyn, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando or Minnesota, all of which finished with 35 or fewer wins and defeated the Celtics last season, would have resulted in Boston snagging the third seed and home-court advantage during the first round of the Playoffs.

Instead, the C’s fell to the fifth seed and opened the postseason on the road against Atlanta. They were eliminated them in six games.

“We’ve just got to keep reminding ourselves that we don’t want to be in that situation again,” Isaiah Thomas said after scoring a team-high 25 points Monday night. “We had a bad loss in New Orleans (Nov. 14); those types of games, we need to win.

“We’ve just got to hold each other accountable, remind ourselves that these are the kind of games we need, and we’ve gotta control what we can control.”

The Celtics have been controlling quite a bit over the last two weeks during their climb up the Eastern Conference standings, where they are currently only a game out of the second seed. They have been getting it done at both ends of the court.

Defensively is where Boston has displayed its most control. The Celtics limited their opponents to 93 or fewer points during three of their last five wins. Additionally, they rank seventh in the league in defensive rating since this 5-2 run began despite having given up an average of 106.5 points per game during their two losses.

This defensive dominance a stark contrast to the way Boston defended prior to its recent run, as it ranked 24th in the league in defensive rating after its first 10 games of the season.

Boston’s offense hasn’t been quite as sharp, but it has been sharp enough. The C’s rank 16th in the league in offensive rating during their last seven games while scoring an average of 99.6 points per game.

In other words, the team is winning ugly, and that’s a good thing. Just ask the 2007-08 Celtics.

Boston has been able to control its play at both ends of the court over its last seven games. But the true reason why it is now taking care of business is an uncontrollable factor: health.

“We were a little banged up at the start and we let some games get away from us there,” said Kelly Olynyk, who himself missed all of training camp and the first six games of the season while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. “But we’ve kind of brought ourselves back up and are starting to win a few on the road now.”

Those wins have coincided with the birth of a full roster, with Olynyk, Al Horford (concussion) and Jae Crowder (ankle) all returning at one point or another to make the team whole for the first time on Nov. 19. The team’s play has improved dramatically with a full roster, but more importantly, its confidence has grown.

“It’s nice to be winning games and playing well as a team,” Olynyk added. “It’s great to have Jae, and Al, although Al didn’t play tonight (due to the birth of his child). We just have so many more options and are back in the flow of things.”

They’re also back in the business of taking care of business. They’re winning on the nights during which they’re expected to do so, and that’s exactly what they need to do to position themselves for a top seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

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