BOSTON — When the curtain rose on a new Celtics season at their impressive new practice facility, the star-studded starting five was down a couple of buckets to the gritty reserves. As if on cue, the starters’ defense, led by Al Horford, made a couple of stops and with the clock winding down and the game on the line, Kyrie Irving shook free on the perimeter and buried a three-pointer.
It was too good to be scripted. Irving’s shot gave the starters a one-point edge over a feisty reserve unit that figures to push those starters every step of the way. It signaled that Kyrie was back, Gordon Hayward was back, and that defense anchored by Horford’s shape-shifting ability to be everywhere was once again ready to spark a comeback.
There’s a tendency to think that the Celtics will pick up right where they left off last season, only now with more offensive firepower. Just about every player from last year’s roster is back for this season, and that group had forged an admirable identity based on toughness, versatility, and playing to its strengths. That spirit of togetherness carried them through injuries Irving and Hayward en route to a 55-win season and within a game of the NBA Finals.
That overlooks an important consideration. By the end of last season, the Celtics were who they were largely because of Irving’s and Hayward’s absence. Terry Rozier stepped into the starting lineup, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum took on larger roles offensively, and Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart provided everything else.
This year’s team must incorporate Hayward, who played all of five minutes before suffering a season-ending injury, as well as Irving, who missed the postseason run with his own injury. In addition, Daniel Theis, a valuable backup big man, is also returning following his season-ending injury.
With Irving and Hayward back in the lineup, the C’s now have four players who could average 20 a game. Take those all-star talents, blend them with Brown and Tatum, add in a bench that goes 11-deep, and the Celtics have the appearance of a team that’s ready for a Finals push so long as they are all committed to the cause on a nightly basis.
The one constant in all of this is Al Horford.
“Last year was a unique team,” Horford says following the team’s first practice sessions. “Our values were trying to play Celtic basketball, really embrace that, like the Celtics of old played. That’s the one thing we’ve harped on, we have to start building it back up. Last year is over with. We did good, but we have to earn it. We understand what’s in front of us and we have to go earn it. Nothing’s going to be given to us.”
If last season was about incorporating new faces and learning on the job, this one is about opportunity. With LeBron James taking his talents to the Lakers, the East is finally wide open with the Celtics right at the front of the line. To make that final jump, it will require all those wonderful intangible qualities that made the C’s so unique last season, along with a dose of selflessness from their star-studded cast.
That isn’t a problem for Horford, who has always been the selfless star on any team he’s played, going back to his college days at the University of Florida. His challenge this season is to provide all that while embracing the physical demands of holding down the center spot.
If Horford isn’t the team’s best player — a tiresome argument that will no doubt be rekindled again at some point this season — then he’s their most important one. The big man is the team’s anchor both offensively and defensively and emotional rock.
On offense, Horfrd provides ballast and balance with his unselfish passing and underrated playmaking. His ability to shoot from behind the three-point line stretches the defense and allows all those slashers to attack the basket without a shot blocker hovering.
It’s on defense where Horford really makes his mark. His ability to guard everyone from opposing centers to high-scoring wings sets the tone for a team that can switch everything and play with abandon. Thanks in large part to Horford’s expert positioning, the Celtics are both fundamentally sound and disruptive, a style that was the league’s toughest defense to score on last season.
“He knows what made us good and he knows what we have to work on to be better,” Brad Stevens said. “We’ve tried our best to talk about that, but his voice carries a lot more weight than mine or any of the other coaches.”
Horford is also perfectly content to cede the spotlight, whether it was for Isaiah Thomas or Irving or anyone else who enjoyed a big night. That’s part of what makes him such a good teammate and respected leader behind the scenes, which is where he prefers to do his talking.
“For me, I have to make sure that I lead by example,” Horford said. “Our focus as a group, what I have to keep harping on, is at the defensive end. Our guys understand that we have to be great defensively. Offense, we have a lot of firepower and I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. I have to make sure that I’m helping out team be the best we can be on defense.”
They key to their defense is that they have a number of wing players who are essentially interchangeable defensively. They can switch everything and guard anyone. Horford takes it one step further. He’s so versatile defensively that he drew the Ben Simmons assignment in the second round of the playoffs, which helped stifle Simmons and neutralize Philly’s up-tempo attack.
That was a lot to ask of the 11-year vet and Horford has taken excellent care of himself over the years. Stevens has also been measured with Horford’s playing time, giving him around 32 minutes a night and resting him at strategic intervals throughout the season. This is maintenance done right.
More significantly is that Horford will be asked to play a lot of center to accommodate all those wing players. In his younger days, Horford preferred to play the four and not deal with the constant pounding that the center position affords. The league’s style of play has changed greatly over the years, mainly because of hybrid players like Horford who can anchor smaller lineups that run those lumbering big men right off the court.
But the East still has a handful of centers who are a handful, principally Joel Embiid, Andre Drummond, and Dwight Howard. On those nights, Stevens has the luxury of rolling out Aron Baynes and Theis to ease some of that burden, which they did effectively last season.
At this stage of his career, Horford has come to peace with his position. He understands that if the Celtics are going to be who they want to be, then his optimal position is at the five. He also understands that if sacrifices are going to be made, they start with him.
After Irving’s shot went down, the reserves still had one more chance to pull out the victory. Stevens drew up a play, but the starters reacted quickly to the action, and left the backups with only a bailout option: Baynes at the top of the key. Horford swiped the ball from Baynes’ hands and secured the victory.