ATLANTA — Celtics coach Brad Stevens isn’t letting his team become content after 14 straight wins, and he continues to suggest that Boston might not be as good as its record indicates.
“We haven’t played well enough to consider this win streak to be valid in my opinion,” Stevens said Saturday morning at Boston’s shootaround at Philips Arena. “We’ve figured out ways to win games. We gotta play a lot better.”
The Celtics have caught the league’s attention with their double-digit winning streak in the aftermath of starting the season 0-2 and losing Gordon Hayward to a season-ending ankle injury.
When Boston took down the defending champion Golden State Warriors on Thursday, limiting the league’s top-ranked offense to a mere 88 points, the buzz reached new heights and many wondered if the young Celtics are the new top dog in the Eastern Conference.
Stevens is happy his team is finding ways to win games, but he doesn’t want the results to deter them from improving, particularly a group that ranks 23rd in offensive rating.
“We’ve got to be better, and we know that,” Stevens said. “We can’t get so caught up in the results of all these games and ride that emotion. We’ve been fortunate to win a lot of the games in this streak, including Thursday night. If we dig ourselves a 17-point hole every other game, it’s not going to be as much fun as we’ve had recently.”
The Celtics have three times rallied from deficits of 17 or more during their streak, including twice coming back from 17-point deficits against the Warriors. Boston also came back from 18 down in Oklahoma City and from 18 down against Charlotte in a game in which Kyrie Irving departed early with a facial fracture when the team was already playing without Hayward and Al Horford.
Boston has leaned on its league-leading defense, a group that is giving up a mere 95.4 points per 100 possessions. That’s more than three points better than the league’s next best defense (Oklahoma City, 98.6), and seven points better than the nearest Eastern Conference rival (Miami, 102.4).
The Celtics play three sub-.500 teams on a three-game road trip that opens Saturday night against Atlanta (3-12) and continues Monday against Dallas (2-14). But Stevens clearly believes his team is in trouble if it takes any of these teams lightly.
“I thought that we played really hard on Thursday, and we really battled defensively and all that stuff, but if we play offense at the same level that we did Thursday night, we’ll get beat [in Atlanta],” Stevens said.
Stevens was pressed about Boston’s offensive woes.
“We got a lot to improve on,” he said. “We have an hourlong shootaround and probably we don’t have enough time to talk about it.”
Irving, who said he will return to wearing a protective mask after ditching the headgear in the second half of Thursday’s win over the Warriors, was asked about what it was like for the Celtics to have a target on their back.
“We have a target on our back now?” Irving asked. “It’s a great perspective. It’s fun. Our focus is not necessarily on that. I don’t even think we see it as that. Taking it one game at a time, understanding the importance of taking advantage of the games we do have a chance to prepare for and going from there.”
Celtics swingman Jaylen Brown, who traveled separate from the team on Friday to mourn the loss of his best friend in Atlanta, was at the team’s shootaround and appears likely to play in Saturday’s game. He scored 22 points in the Celtics’ win on Thursday, just hours after learning about the death.