BOSTON – The Celtics are just days away from a third consecutive trip to the playoffs. And for the first time in the Brad Stevens Era, Boston will play with the pressure of increased expectations.
That’s how it is when you’re the No. 1 seed.
And while that in itself should breed a certain level of confidence, Boston is feeling good about its chances of advancing through the postseason for another reason – Al Horford.
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For all the record-setting milestones Isaiah Thomas has eclipsed this season for the Celtics, the addition of Horford has been the single-most important factor in Boston’s success this season.
They hope to keep it going on Sunday (6:30, CSN) in Game 1 of their best-of-seven first round series with the Chicago Bulls.
Thomas, who led the East in scoring this season at 28.9 points per game and was third overall, recalled Boston’s postseason run last season which lasted just six games courtesy of Horford and his ex-teammates in Atlanta, who eliminated the Celtics in the first round.
“I remember him doing all the little things,” Thomas said. “When we were watching film and seeing what they were doing well against us he was in every play. Offensively, he was making plays … one thing that stood out the most was how good he was as a [shot] contester. He contested shots every time down. I’m glad he’s on our team now. He can do that to the Bulls.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens echoed similar sentiments about Horford.
“Obviously, we’re thrilled that he’s here,” Stevens said of Horford. “Like all of our other guys, we need him to play at a good level. I know he’s preparing the way he always prepares. We’re looking forward to competing.”
Horford was asked about what he remembered from playing against the Celtics in the postseason last year.
“It was a very physical, hard-nosed playing series,” he said. “Throughout the games, it was very competitive. It was a tough series.”
And Horford expects more of the same this weekend when the Celtics take on the Chicago Bulls who are led by Jimmy Butler in addition to a pair of veteran All-Stars in Dwyane Wade and ex-Celtic Rajon Rondo.
Butler was once again one of the top two-way players in the NBA this past season, while Wade and Rondo had their ups and downs this season.
Still, both Wade and Rondo have shown the ability to elevate their play in the postseason, which is reason enough for the Celtics to maintain a relatively high level of focus.
“We have to do the things that we do, right?” Horford said. “Watch film, go over coverages, look at tendencies, things that will help us. But we know what they’re capable of. We know that they’ve played in big games before and they’re comfortable in that. For us, it’s making sure we help each other, stay together.”
And that approach, “staying together,” in lots of ways embodies the glue-like role that Horford has played in Boston and, truthfully, has been at heart of who he has always been as a player.
At the University of Florida, Horford was a central figure in the Gators winning back-to-back national titles.
Drafted by Atlanta, which had very little tradition in terms of sustained success, Horford led the Hawks to the postseason for nine years until he signed a four-year, $113 million contract in the summer to play for Boston.
And in his first season with the Celtics, Boston (53-29) finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference, which had not happened for the C’s since the 2008 title team.
“Al’s about winning,” Stevens said. “That’s what he’s about.
Stevens added, “he helps you win because he does every little thing at both ends of the court, and the way that he carries himself off the court. He talks, people listen; he says the right things and all those other things. That was a short answer earlier, but it’s about as good a compliment as I can give.”