The Boston Celtics should have high hopes for next season. Only two Eastern Conference teams -- the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors -- finished with better records than they did last year, and then they added Al Horford in free agency. The Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets, who all tied Boston with 48 wins, appear to have gotten worse in the offseason. Celtics forward Jae Crowder, who was particularly forthcoming on Thursday, dismissed most of the competition and said that the current champions are the only team he is concerned about, via MassLive.com's Tom Westerholm:
"My guys were telling me that Bleacher Report says we'll win 59 games," Crowder said. "That's a lot of wins, but I want to get past the first round of the playoffs. Two seasons in a row getting swept" (Note: The Celtics lost in six games this past year) "that's my goal to be honest with you. I think our ceiling is the Eastern Conference Finals. Toronto is not a team we're worried about. I think Cleveland is the top team. That's what it comes down to."
There will be people in Toronto who will get upset about this. The Raptors won 56 games last season and then advanced to the conference finals, where they beat Cleveland twice. They also beat Boston in three of their four meetings. Even though they lost center Bismack Biyombo in free agency, they are probably the safest bet to finish second in the East.
This sounds a lot like the time that Paul Pierce told ESPN's Jackie MacMullan that Toronto does not have "the 'it' that makes you worried." That angered everybody in the Raptors organization, and it played to their belief that they are overlooked because they don't have a traditional superstar and they play in Canada. In a weird way, Toronto loves this stuff.
So, is Crowder disrespecting the Raptors? I guess, but that's kind of great. He is aware that they are Boston's main competition for that second seed, and he is trying to get in their heads already. Elsewhere in the interview, Crowder said that Boston is still "a few pieces" away from being where it wants to be, so it's not like he is delusional. He just wants to let everybody know that, with Horford aboard, the Cetlics are serious about winning big now. As they should be.