AP NEWS

Brad Stevens, Celtics take key Raptors tilt in stride

January 10, 2017 GMT

WALTHAM — Any attempt to make tonight’s titanic tilt in Toronto into roundball Armageddon fell flat at the feet of Brad Stevens yesterday.

To be sure, the Celtics, now a game behind, can forge a tie with the Raptors in the all-important race for the championship (Eastern Conference, non-Cleveland category) with a victory this evening, but not even James Earl Jones’ voice on the promo can change the fact this is still January.

“I mean, I think from the standpoint of obviously at the end of the year you want to be in the best position you possibly can,” said Stevens before the Celts flew north. “I think maybe it’s a little early with 45 games left.”

Amir Johnson, on the other hand, was more than willing to play along as he prepared to return to his former NBA home.

“Absolutely,” he said of the game’s import now that the Celts have a chance to tie the Raptors. “We definitely recognize where they are, where we are. It’s like a big game in the East, and we have a chance to definitely tie them. So it’s going to be a big game.”

Good effort, Big Dog, but the truth is this might not even me a proper measure of where the teams stand in relation to each other at this young stage of the season. That’s because Avery Bradley will miss his second straight game with a strained right Achilles tendon.

Dealing with the Raptors’ backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry would be difficult under the best of circumstances, but even more so when missing a first-team All-Defensive presence.

Stevens said Bradley had an MRI Sunday, “and it confirmed what we had said.” The Celts are hoping he can play on the second half of the back-to-back when they host Washington tomorrow.

“He felt a lot better after treatment (Sunday), after treatment (yesterday),” Stevens said. “Ed (Lacerte, the trainer) said in the first time we looked at it that it’s most likely 5-7 days after the injury. It was Friday (against Philadelphia), so fifth day would be (tomorrow). So there’s a chance he’d play (tomorrow), but because of the travel, because of the late night, we’ll just leave him here and try to get him ready to play (tomorrow).”

As for tonight against the Raptors, he said, “People struggle with them because they’re really good. Lowry and DeRozan are outstanding players, and Lowry has continued to make huge game-changing plays, deep into the game, over and over and over. DeRozan, I think, is having a career year and that’s saying something because he was an All-Star prior to this.”

And the Celtics have been having defensive troubles. They’ve given up an average of 110.1 points over the last 10 games, eight of which they’ve won.

“We haven’t been very good,” Stevens said of the D. “There’s a lot of things that go with that. We’ve been good at times in games but not as good as we need to be ultimately. The New Orleans game was a good microcosm of who we’ve been — 30-points-plus first quarter, great second and third quarter, and then a 30-point-plus fourth quarter. Not necessarily in that order, but we’re guarding at a high level about half the time. And we’re going to have to be a lot better than that if we want to be a good team.”

As for the problem area, Jae Crowder said, “Focus probably is the main one. Our intensity dips up and down, but our focus should always be there. That’s on us players. We’re trying to take care of all the little things that we can take care of on the defensive end to give ourselves a chance to win the game.”

On the possibility that improved offense is leading to defensive slippage, Crowder said, “It shouldn’t, but I guess you can say that. But it shouldn’t. We just got to get back to the basics and doing what we want to do on the defensive end of the court. All five guys being on the same page is very simple if we keep it simple. Our offense should not dictate our defensive effort.”

Celts notes

Bradley wasn’t the only Celtic missing from the flight yesterday. James Young remains out with a sprained ankle, and Tyler Zeller’s sinus infection is lingering.

“Tyler is still dealing with a lot of the symptoms that he’s had, so he’s actually doing some more testing and getting a few more opinions,” said Stevens. …

With the NFL conference semifinal matchups set, Crowder was asked what kind of chance Houston has against the Patriots Saturday.

“I don’t think any,” he said. “I’m just keeping it honest. Who knows? It’s playoffs, so maybe those guys will rally. We’ll see.”

Crowder, a Georgia native, acknowledged the Falcons are his team, adding, “We’re going to be all right. We good.”

In that Atlanta’s opponent is Seattle, Crowder said he’s already been hearing it from Isaiah Thomas.