WALTHAM, Mass. – Al Horford has been on many high-caliber playoff teams during his 10-year NBA career. Through all of his experience, he has never been as optimistic entering the postseason as he currently is with the Boston Celtics.
Horford has experienced a 60 win-season with the Atlanta Hawks. He’s embarked on playoff journeys with All-Star laden, veteran squads on a number of occasions.
So, what is it about this Celtics team that sticks out so strongly to him?
“Just the potential that I see with the group,” Horford told reporters Friday afternoon, two days before Game 1 of Boston’s first-round series against the Chicago Bulls. “From where we were at in the beginning of the year until now, I feel like we’ve improved a great deal. At the beginning of the year I think there was a lot of uncertainty, but a lot of our younger guys have really grown up.”
The Celtics have come a long way since the beginning of the season. A plethora of injuries hurt them early on as they went an underwhelming 13-12 through the first month and a half of the season.
From Dec. 14 through the end of the season, however, the Celtics won more than 70 percent of their games with a mark of 40-17. Only the Golden State Warriors (44 wins) had more victories during that lengthy time span.
As Horford mentioned, Boston’s success has hinged upon its growth throughout the season.
Young players, such as 20-year-old rookie Jaylen Brown, have developed at a rapid pace, and have been able to contribute significantly to the first-seeded squad.
Isaiah Thomas has blossomed into one of the premier offensive players in the league, proven by his Eastern Conference-leading scoring average of 28.9 points per game.
And, as a whole, Boston has emerged as one of the scrappiest, most tenacious teams in the NBA.
This is exactly what Horford envisioned when he signed with the Celtics last summer. And this is exactly why he believes Boston can deliver some serious damage once the Playoffs begin.
“I feel good about [these guys],” Horford said. “Their toughness, their commitment, I know they want to win, and it’s going to be fun.”
While Horford has been impressed by Boston’s development, he, in fact, is one of the main reasons why the team has been able to grow so well together. He’s provided the Celtics with a unique form of selfless leadership that has allowed his teammates – such as Isaiah Thomas – to flourish.
“He’s been real important to my success,” claims Thomas, who’s seen his scoring output spike by more than 30 percent from last season to this season. “I remember early in the year he told me, ‘I’m here to make things easier for you. You’re going to lead this team and I’m going to make this as easy as possible.’ And he meant that. He’s been exactly what he says since Day 1, so he’s meant a lot for me.”
Horford’s presence has meant a lot for everybody, according to coach Brad Stevens. That’s because the veteran big man is able to impact winning in virtually every area of the game.
“He helps you win because he does every little thing on both ends of the court,” said Stevens. “And the way that he carries himself off the court – when he talks, people listen, and he says the right things.”
Horford’s intangible attributes have boosted Boston’s growth, and, as a result, the Celtics have begun to develop into the team that he envisioned last summer when he came on board.
Now, he’s ready to see what they can do on the NBA’s biggest stage.
“These are the playoffs that I’ve looked forward to the most probably since I’ve been in this league,” said Horford. “I feel very strong about this group. I think we have a special group. I can’t wait for us to get started.”