Right around the time Jayson Tatum got fancy with his dribble and launched a stepback 3-pointer over old friend Al Horford — one of Tatum’s eight long-distance makes that helped Boston rally out of an early hole en route to a breezy Game 2 triumph over the Sixers — it sent us in a time machine back to June 18, 2019.
That was the night that word trickled out that Horford and the Celtics would not come to an agreement on a new deal, this after Horford opted out of the final year of his pact, one that would have paid him $30 million.
At the time, it seemed like a gut punch for a Celtics team that had already braced itself for the departure of Kyrie Irving. (Yeah, we know, we know — nobody was shedding tears about Irving’s decision to flee.) Watching two max-salary All-Stars dance away without recouping value is typically the sort of thing that relegates NBA teams to a long period of mediocrity.
Now, 14 months later, it’s fair to wonder if Horford’s decision to depart — and Boston’s resolution not to overspend to keep him — was actually a blessing in disguise.
Let’s be clear, this isn’t an "Al Horford is washed up” column. In the right situation, Horford might still be a top contributor for a championship-caliber team. Alas, the Sixers are neither the right fit nor a title team. Horford got shuffled to a reserve role for Wednesday’s Game 2 and finished with just 4 points over 23 minutes.
This is a column wondering if Tatum and Jaylen Brown would have ever flourished the way they have if Irving and Horford’s departure didn’t force the Celtics to audible and make an unexpected run at Kemba Walker.
As much as Danny Ainge got grief for dubbing the addition of Walker and Enes Kanter as “Plan A,” it really might have turned out to be the best possible situation for Boston. And mostly because it changed the entire vibe around the organization and laid the groundwork for Tatum and Brown to further blossom into star talent.
Tatum, who showed up for Game 2 wearing Larry Bird-themed shorts, further honored the Hick from French Lick by putting up a team-high 33 points on 12-of-20 shooting. Brown added 20 points, while Walker chipped in 22 more as the Celtics took a commanding 2-0 series lead.
As Embiid and Horford sat on the Philadelphia bench pondering the Sixers’ very uncertain future, Boston’s star trio celebrated every big moment produced by a bench that cranked up its production after Gordon Hayward went down with an ankle injury in Game 1.
A season after the “young guys” were routinely blamed for Boston’s shortcomings, it cannot be overlooked when Walker plops down in front of the Zoom cameras and routinely gushes about what Tatum and Brown mean to this team’s success — both now and deeper into the future.
“[Tatum is] a superstar. He’s a superstar. He’s been showing it night in, night out. He just makes the right reads, man. He’s a special talent,” said Walker. "As well as Jaylen. Jaylen’s a superstar as well. Those two guys are phenomenal basketball players.
"I love being around those two guys, I love the way they play basketball, I love how much they love the game of basketball. It’s just really fun to be around those guys. Really, really special dudes.”
It’s important to note here that Horford was largely supportive of Boston’s younger players. But his departure was the key in the Celtics freeing up enough cap space to at least ponder the pursuit of Walker, which still required some cap gymnastics, including trading away Aron Baynes on draft night.
Maybe Tatum and Brown would have still blossomed if Horford stuck around. Maybe the Celtics would have figured out a different plan that included Horford as a key element moving forward.
The Sixers doled out big money to land Horford with the 34-year-old making $28 million in the first season of a partially-guaranteed, four-year, $109 million contract. That’s more money than the Celtics are paying Brown over the next four seasons, and he’s trending towards being a perennially All-Star during that span.
Given Horford's prickly fit next to Embiid (and, when healthy, Ben Simmons), it’s fair to wonder if his future is in Philadelphia, a team that’s ripe for a large overhaul this offseason.
The Celtics, meanwhile, can lock up Tatum long-term after the playoffs. They’ll have Walker under contract for three more seasons and Brown’s rookie extension just kicking in. Coach Brad Stevens got an extension, too, inside the bubble.
A future that once seemed very murky when Horford departed, now is as bright as can be. The Celtics still need a lot to go right to be a legitimate title threat, and Hayward’s injury will challenge them in this year’s pursuit, and yet Tatum and Brown seem eager to take on the challenge of leading Boston forward.
And Walker is eager to celebrate whatever they accomplish, which isn’t lost on the Jays.
"It’s big just to have a guy like that come in,” said Tatum. “Obviously, we know all that he’s accomplished over the years, all that he’s capable of. He’s been one of the best players in the league for a long time now and for him to just come into a situation where winning is really most important.
"I know that he sees that other guys are on the rise and capable, and he just wants to win. You can see that night in and night out. Whether he plays good or doesn’t, when we win, he’s the happiest guy on the team.” Fourteen months later, Celtics fans are pretty smitten with the way it all worked out, too.