BOSTON – Three years ago, Al Horford was a member of the Atlanta Hawks who at that time were off to a great start, similar to how the Boston Celtics have begun this season.
Film study would be part of the preparation for Horford and his then-Atlanta teammates.
But a funny thing happened once they got on the floor.
The team that Horford and his teammates saw on film, didn’t play nearly as hard or as focused or effective as the squad they faced that night.
“What I learned from that, we weren’t sneaking up on anyone,” Horford said. “Teams were ready for us and were going to give us their best shot.”
Such is life when you have the best record in the NBA like the Celtics (18-4) which makes them the measuring stick most teams compare themselves to including tonight’s opponent, the Philadelphia 76ers (12-8) who are coming off a 118-113 home win over Washington Wednesday night.
Having that target on them on a night-in, night-out basis is certainly new ground for most of the Celtics players.
But does it bring about added pressure?
“I don’t feel in any pressure at all,” said second-year wing Jaylen Brown. “But as a team? Yeah, there is. We’re getting team’s best. Miami and Detroit, two teams that beat us, I think they played playoff level basketball. We have to play and have that same energy every night. If we want to win we gotta match it.”
But as they’re experiencing first-hand, that’s easier said than done.
“It requires that … we’re even more locked in from the beginning of the game,” Horford said. “To be able to sustain it throughout. Teams are coming out. They’re trying to give us their best shot. And that’s the way it is. As a group we’ll keep learning and growing from this.”
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has been bullish when it comes to focusing on growth rather than getting bogged down with a specific opponent or the fact that his team operates now with a target on its back based upon their success thus far and will get the best effort from opponents.
“You have to expect that every night in the NBA, regardless,” Stevens said. “When you don’t play well or don’t play up to standard, you’re probably going to get beat no matter who you are. But the other night (against Detroit on Monday), we did a lot of good things. But it shows you how small the margin is still. That only gives yourself a chance to win.”
What makes Boston’s team-to-watch status even more surprising is how they have been winning with one of the youngest rosters in the NBA.
That’s why the loss to the Pistons was more than just an in-season setback. It provided proof-positive that there are going to be nights when playing a good game isn’t going to be good enough for the Celtics to win.
The way Horford sees it, everything that this team experiences only adds value to Boston's continued growth and understanding of how to play well with one another and do so with consistency.
“This is our first season,” Horford pointed out. “We’ve already been through a lot as a group. Everything is a learning experience, traveling, on the road, getting in at 3 in the morning and make sure you try to go to bed as quick as you can, getting rest, eating right … there’s a lot of things; our guys, it’s a lot to throw at them especially our rookies. It’s a learning curve and another part of it is, being able to learn and understand you have a target on your back. You have to come out fighting. If you relax or don’t come out ready to play, teams will embarrass you. That’s something we’re aware of, and we’re all learning from that.”
And this learning process has an end-game to it, and it’s pretty simple.
“For us, we’re trying to establish ourselves as a premier team in this league,” said Boston’s Kyrie Irving. “In order to do that, you have to beat some of the best teams. You have to do it consistently in order to garner respect. We understand that. It takes a lot of disciple, takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of sacrifice in order to do that consistently and get better.”
And that desire is what drives Irving and the rest of his teammates to continue improving and stay among the elite teams record-wise in the NBA.
“That’s the beautiful thing about being on an NBA team,” Irving said. “And that’s finding out on a day-to-day basis what it actually takes to be a great team in this league. Some teams figure it out; some teams do eventually, some teams figure it out in the playoffs, some teams different points in the season. It just depends on do you have the guys that are willing to pay attention to details and have the will to do it? It takes some strong individuals to come together as a group and develop a camaraderie that you can withstand in any environment, in any situation.”