BOSTON -- Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens said the thing he loves most about Isaiah Thomas is that he plays with a chip on his shoulder every night. Even after elevating to All-Star status this season and pushing Boston near the top of the Eastern Conference, Thomas still operates with an us-against-the-world mentality that has clearly trickled down to his teammates.
That much was obvious on Wednesday night. The Celtics seemed almost a little overhyped with the red-hot Portland Trail Blazers and the buzz-heavy backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in town. Despite digging itself an early hole, Boston used an absolutely dominant third quarter to race away with a 116-93 triumph in which Thomas scored a game-high 30 points in less than 30 minutes of floor time.
"Teams, players, the NBA -- they still don’t respect us. And we know that," said Thomas. "We go into every game with a chip on our shoulder knowing that we have to earn the respect, and we have to earn what we get, and take what’s ours. We feel like every game we’ve got a chance to win if we play the right brand of basketball."
When asked why people don't respect the Celtics, Thomas smiled and offered, "I guess we’ve got no superstar. No foundation player, right?"
Thomas is smarting after a couple of local talking heads suggested he was a good complementary player but not the sort of star a team could build a championship contender around. Smothered recently with praise after earning his first All-Star nod, Thomas seemed almost relieved to have some fresh naysayer fuel for the stretch run.
And having Lillard -- ironically, an All-Star snub -- and McCollum in town on Wednesday only further helped bring out the best in Thomas, who relentlessly attacked the basket in the first half while helping Boston stay close until fatigue hit the travel-heavy Blazers. Even after Portland made field goals, Thomas would take the inbounds pass and attack in transition, outracing the Blazers down the court or finishing in traffic. It only helped sap Portland's energy, and Boston ran circles around the visitors in the third quarter.
"Every game is [a chip-on-the-shoulder game] for us, honestly," said Thomas. "It just happened to be today against two of the best guards in the NBA as a tandem. I keep saying it, but as a group, we did a great job of just containing them and making them work. And also on the offensive end, we made them play defense. That’s something we wanted to do going into the day: Make them defend as well and don’t let them off the hook."
The Celtics have now won four straight overall and 12 in a row at home. In fact, Boston has won 10 of its last 13 and 18 of its last 24. The Celtics (37-25) were a .500 squad just 50 days ago after a loss to the New York Knicks, but now Boston sits in third place in the Eastern Conference at 12 games over .500. What's more, the Celtics own a two-game cushion -- and the head-to-head tiebreaker -- over the nearby Miami Heat in a quest for a prime playoff spot (one that might help Boston avoid the Cleveland Cavaliers as long as possible).
These Celtics might have a perpetual chip on their shoulder, but there are times when they play with some serious swagger while trying to convince the pundits that they are legitimate contenders. They're content to believe that no one believes in them.
"We'll constantly keep flying under the radar," said Jared Sullinger, who helped key Boston's third-quarter run with both his effort on the glass and scoring.
Most look at the Celtics' roster and wonder how Stevens -- the NBA's Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for February -- is getting his team to perform like it has. Boston owns a top-3 defense -- and nudged a little closer to the second-ranked Hawks with Wednesday's effort -- and an offense that has made tremendous strides since the start of the season (a 109.5 offensive rating over the past 10 games would rank among the top three in the league if maintained).
But the roster lacks the obvious star power that most NBA contenders boast. So these unheralded Celtics have embraced the idea that they play beyond what might be expected from the sum of their parts, with Stevens the ringleader with a magical dry-erase board in his hand.
Being overlooked is motivation for these Celtics.
"I think most of us have been [playing with a chip on their shoulders] our whole lives," said second-year guard Marcus Smart. "It’s nothing new to us. We understand we’re a young team and we have a lot to learn. But at the same time, we’re all competitors and we love to win, so we want to find a way to go out there and compete every night."
Smart pairs with Evan Turner to give Boston a backup backcourt tandem that offers little drop-off when replacing starters Thomas and Avery Bradley. Jae Crowder might be the team's best two-way player -- this after he struggled to carve out a role in Dallas before arriving as a piece in the Rajon Rondo deal in December 2014. Sullinger has been a double-double machine during this recent stretch. Free-agent splurge Amir Johnson has thrived on hustle lately. And guys like Jonas Jerebko and Tyler Zeller are giving quality minutes off the bench.
"We’re all important. We’re a team. We all need each other," Bradley said. "We all do little things in order for us to be as good as we are."
And the Celtics savor nights like Wednesday, when they turn some heads by beating a team that finally had the rest of the league taking notice. Now, Boston will wait to see if eyes shift to them.
"You just want to compete and not back down from anyone," said Thomas. "[Lillard and McCollum] are two great guards and play a high level, but me and Avery love these type of games. We just like competing against the best. We did a pretty good job here. I'm just happy we got the win. I mean, that's the most important thing."