Celtics

Celtics

BOSTON -- There is an undeniable audience that looks forward to the drama that in NBA circles is better known as free agency. 

It has a way of captivating many, including Al Horford, who readily admits he was no different than most NBA fans last summer when it came to eagerly awaiting word of where LeBron James was going to end up. 

“I’m getting my popcorn ready, I’m doing all of that,” said a chuckling Horford. “I enjoyed watching it. Being a part of it? Not so much.”

Horford, 32, has been around the NBA long enough to know free agency can be a chaotic time if you’re a player caught up in the middle of the vortex that can spin out of control at times.

To his credit, his track record suggests his free agency has never dominated the headlines. This summer appears to be no different.

Horford is well-regarded as one of the NBA’s better stretch bigs and an overall good locker-room guy. 

And yet you hear very little about his potential free agency this summer, which is exactly how Horford wants it to be. 

“I just think my priority and all my energy has to be for this team, this year and this great opportunity we have,” Horford told NBC Sports Boston. “I’m very grateful to be in this position. And I really just want to make the most out of it. There’s nothing more important to me than right now, then giving the best of me and in any aspect of the team, whether it’s on the court, off the court, leadership, whatever it is. All my energy is focused on that.”

 

And that effort and focus will be on display beginning Sunday afternoon when the Celtics open their second-round playoff series with Game 1 at Milwaukee. Game 2 will be there Tuesday followed by Games 3 and 4 back in Boston on Friday and next Sunday.

“I don’t think we can over-state his importance to our team,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of Horford earlier this season. 

Horford's defense has been steady all season, while his offense has increased each month.

Defensively, Horford will likely spend a good chunk of the game trying to slow down MVP front-runner Giannis Antetokounmpo while at the same time providing some much-needed offensive punch. 

In a 98-97 loss to the Bucks in February, Horford defended Antetokounmpo on 37 possessions, which was more than three times as many as the next Celtic (Marcus Morris, 11 possessions) when it came to defending the Greek Freak. 

And when he wasn’t trying to slow Antetokounmpo, Horford was heating up from the field. 

In the two regular-season games against the Bucks, Horford averaged a double-double of 19.5 points and 11.0 rebounds to go with 6.5 assists per game.

And while Horford’s focus remains on the Bucks series, he knows sometime down the road he will have to give some thought to whether he will opt-out of the final year of his contract, which would pay him $30.1 million for the 2019-2020 season, or opt-out and sign a long-term, shorter-money contract with Boston.

Of course, there’s always the possibility of him opting out and signing elsewhere this summer, but that seems an unlikely option for Horford to consider. 

When Horford signed a four-year, $113.1 million contract with the Celtics in the summer of 2016, he did so after spending the previous nine seasons with the Atlanta Hawks.

The decision to leave was not one that was made lightly, but became easier as he got to know Danny Ainge, C's president of basketball operations, and Stevens.

And that bond with Ainge and Stevens has only grown stronger over time. 

“The things that Danny and coach [Stevens] talked to me about, everything has come full circle, everything has come together,” Horford said. “Part of me making this leap here was my faith and me being confident that here was going to be my blessing; here was where things were going to happen. And it just felt good to see everything starting to come together.

Horford added, “All I ever wanted was to have the opportunity to be in this position, to be in this situation. And I have it now.”

In his third season with the Celtics, Horford has played in the Eastern Conference Finals each of his past two seasons. When he was with the Hawks, Horford only had one season (2015) getting there and it ended with Atlanta getting swept by Cleveland.

 

The Celtics come into this series with the Bucks not quite as complete as they would want to be (Marcus Smart is out with an oblique tear that’s expected to keep him out a few more weeks), but further along than they were a year ago when they managed to advance to the Conference Finals, which ended with a Game 7 loss at home to Cleveland. 

Back then, the Celtics didn’t have Kyrie Irving, the team’s top scorer in the regular season as well as the playoffs. Irving missed the playoffs last season with knee issues. 

Now, in his first postseason run with the Celtics, “Playoff" Kyrie has played his role well enough for Boston to have moved on past Indiana in just four games - the first playoff sweep for this group of players. 

Gordon Hayward, also out for all of Boston’s playoff run a year ago, has provided some much-needed firepower off the bench in what is also his first postseason with the Celtics. Adding Irving and Hayward to the mix of a team that was a win away from getting to the NBA Finals last year gives the Celtics a level of confidence that they can knock off Milwaukee, which finished with the league’s best record this season (60-22). 

Doing so would only raise the profile of Horford and the Celtics and maybe lead to a few more inquiries into Horford’s future from other teams who, at this point, are convinced that he will be back in Boston next season. 

Needless to say, Horford is in no hurry to be a part of the chaotic times that tend to come when free agency begins. 

“I understand that part of it and I see why people make such a big deal out of it, but that’s just part of this business,” Horford said. “I just choose to just come in and focus on the team. I just try to go out there and play the right way, help our team win and get this championship.”

Indeed, competing for a title, more than anything, appears to be Horford’s focus. 

“Everybody wants to talk contract, but I take a lot of joy out of playing, being in this moment,” Horford said. “All that stuff will be there, regardless. If we just focus in on playing and this journey, that’s what it’s all about for me.”

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