NBA

Injury-ravaged Boston Celtics have closed the gap on Toronto Raptors at the top of Eastern Conference

Jay Asser 20:39 01/04/2018
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Jayson Tatum had 24 points in the victory over Toronto.

As recently as a week ago, the hierarchy at the top of the Eastern Conference was a foregone conclusion.

After beating the Toronto Raptors 110-99 on Saturday for their sixth straight win, however, the Boston Celtics have improbably climbed back into the race for the top seed.

And they’ve done all of it while dealing with multiple injuries to some of their most important players. Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart haven’t played March 11 and in their absence, Boston have also been without Jaylen Brown for five games, and Al Horford and Marcus Morris for two. Not to be forgotten is Gordon Hayward being sidelined since the season opener.

Despite all the adversity, the Celtics have tied their win total of 53 from last season, when they finished atop the East standings and reached the conference finals, and now have a shot at grabbing the top seed again.

The victory against Toronto pulled Boston within two games of the Raptors, with both teams having six games left in the season, including another head-to-head meeting on Wednesday.

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“Nobody on the other team [is] going to care who we got out there, so we can’t care, either,” said Celtics guard Terry Rozier, who had 21 points and seven assists on Saturday.

“We just go out there and we just play. We don’t even think about it. Our coaches do a great job, no matter who we got, to put us in the right position to make us successful.”

Along with Rozier’s contributions, Boston received 25 points from Morris and 24 from rookie Jayson Tatum.

The trio have significantly stepped up their play since Irving and Smart last played a game, with Morris averaging 21.9 points on 50.0 per cent shooting from the field and 51.4 per cent from 3; Rozier tallying 18.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game; and Tatum averaging 17.9 points and 6.2 rebounds while shooting 50.4 per cent overall and 44.4 per cent from long range.

Tatum has been especially impressive considering his age (20) and inexperience. With Irving not around to carry the scoring load, the phenom has taken on more responsibility as both a scorer and playmaker.

Against the Raptors, Celtics coach Brad Stevens even unleashed Tatum at point guard for stretches with back-up Shane Larkin also out to injury, and he rewarded the faith by dishing four assists and finishing without a single turnover.

After appearing to hit the rookie wall in January and February, Tatum has rebounded to take his game to another level in March.

“I just think as he gets more experience, he’s getting better,” Stevens said. “He’s done a great job working in the weight room, doing different things to continue to go through the long season, and he’s really, really starting to peak, I think. It’s been fun to watch.

“We played him at the one some tonight, which we haven’t done yet, and it allowed us to be really big on the other end of the floor, which was nice. But obviously, he’s just a talented guy. He does a lot of good things.”

Even if Boston don’t end up overtaking Toronto and enter the playoffs as the second seed, the way the past couple weeks have been an encouraging sign for their ability to potentially survive in the first round without Irving and Smart.

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