Celtics win eighth straight, still seek ‘another level’

NEW YORK — After the Boston Celtics claimed their season-best eighth straight victory Saturday night, defeating the New York Knicks 116-102 at Madison Square Garden, Boston now has an eight-game cushion over the second-place Cleveland Cavaliers atop the Eastern Conference.

That is a bigger gap than the one between the West-leading Minnesota Timberwolves and the eighth-place Phoenix Suns (7 games). But rather than applauding their league-leading performance through the first two-thirds of the season, the Celtics instead claimed they have higher levels to reach.

“It’s just the way kind of the season has gone,” Celtics center Al Horford said. “We’ve kind of held our own, continued to work through things. Obviously the Sixers have injuries, different teams have different stuff going on, so that all goes into account.

“But I can just speak to we’re continuing to play good basketball. We’re really trying to play the right way. I feel like (Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla) is really challenging us to continue to get better. This is the stretch of the season where we can really take it to another level, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

When asked what another level looks like for a Celtics team that has the league’s best-record (45-12), a massive lead over the rest of the conference and is one of only 6 teams since the 1996-97 season with a net rating north of 10 points per 100 possessions for the season (10.5, to be exact), according to ESPN Stats & Information research, Horford smiled.

“That’s a really good question,” he said, “but I feel like we’re not where we need to be yet, and that’s a good thing.

“It’s such a long season, and it’s hard to what we can, but it’s encouraging that we’re continuing to win in different ways and play differently.”

Mostly, the Celtics have just kept winning. In an Eastern Conference that, as Horford alluded to, has been beset by injuries to virtually every team trailing them, Boston has continued to churn out victories no matter who has been available. Saturday’s victory over the Knicks not only was Boston’s eighth straight, but it’s ninth in 11 games and 13th in its last 15 contests.

And it was one that saw the Celtics shoot a blistering 80 percent from 2-point range (24-for-30) through three quarters against a Knicks team that, speaking of injuries, is still missing its entire starting frontcourt of OG Anunoby (elbow), Julius Randle (shoulder) and Mitchell Robinson (ankle).

But after New York hung in the game through a half behind a Jalen Brunson (34 points and 9 assists) before making some strategic adjustments in the third quarter, changing matchups to get Kristaps Porzingis onto smaller defenders to make Brunson’s life more difficult in the pick-and-roll.

That, coupled with the Celtics making nine threes in the third quarter alone, allowed Boston to blow open what had been a competitive game, and go on to a relatively easy victory.

“The guys understand how to positively impact each other,” Mazzulla said. “They understand how going into something at one point in the game is going to open it up for someone else later in the game. And we have different combinations, and the guys trust those combinations, and it puts us in a better position to win.

“At the end of the day, it’s about winning, and the guys are understanding that. They understand how they affect each other.”

Boston is also acutely aware of the bigger picture. Including Saturday night’s victory, the Celtics have won more regular season games (394) than any NBA team since the start of the 2016-17 season, Jaylen Brown‘s rookie year, and more playoff games (61) than anyone but the Golden State Warriors (68), who have won three NBA championships in that span.

The Celtics, on the other hand, are still waiting to hang Banner 18 in the TD Garden rafters. And from Brown, who led Boston with 30 points, to Horford to Porzingis, the consistent message postgame from all involved was that this group, while pleased with how it is playing now, is only focused on making sure that it is as ready to go as it can be once the playoffs arrive in two months’ time.

“When it comes down to the playoffs, none of that stuff really matters,” said Brown, when asked if he had paid any attention to how far Boston has pushed itself ahead of the pack.

“I feel like it’s going to be about matchups, it’s going to be about playing hard. Obviously, home court matters, so that is key, but when you get into the thick of it, you got to win basketball games. Regardless of what your seed is.

“If anything, it puts more pressure on you. But I think we’re an experienced team. We’ve been in these situations before and I think we’re ready.”

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