BOSTON — The Celtics have developed a tenuous relationship with success. After climbing any given mountain, they are likely to walk to the edge of a cliff before planting their flag and moving on.
This would seem most discomforting to someone like Al Horford, who does not have many remaining shots at a championship in his basketball life. If the Celts make the NBA Finals, he will turn 37 during the series.
But after the Bostonians fought off an elimination game in Philadelphia Thursday and smoked the Sixers in Game 7 Sunday, Horford, in a conversation with Heavy Sports, denied the urgency was any greater for him. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that someone of his years would have such wisdom, but his point should find a more youthful target. This pressing need to take advantage of a deep playoff run ain’t just about him.
“If you look at it, the reality is that even though a lot of younger guys think they have opportunities and will have more of them, these doors close,” he said, drawing out those last three words before adding, “You know what I’m saying?
“So when we’re in these positions, I think everybody is starting to understand that, you know, even though, ‘Oh, I’m young. I have time,’ and this and that, it’s not guaranteed that you’re going to be in these positions,” Horford said. “That’s something that I feel like we understand, and that’s why we’re trying to make the most of it.”
Horford has spoken to his teammates about this, getting verbal support from 34-year-old Blake Griffin, who’s also trying to complete a championship run after 14 years of coming up short. (Even now, Griffin has reached the first conference final of his career with this upcoming series vs. Miami.)
“Having Blake around, having me around, it gives that type of perspective,” said Horford.
Marcus Smart Knows the Urgency
Later, before Marcus Smart left TD Garden, he was told of Horford’s comments — that having a contending team isn’t a given, that it isn’t always the case another opportunity will come.
“No, it’s not,” Smart said to Heavy Sports. “It is not always the case. It is definitely urgent for us all — young guys, older guys.
“You know, I’ve played with guys who’ve never had a chance in the playoffs, played with guys who never even got close to winning it, played with guys who never even got past the second round. I’ve been blessed to be in the playoffs every year I’ve been here. Al’s blessed to be here. We’ve all been blessed here to be on a team where we are capable and actually have a true chance to win a championship. So it is very urgent and important for us, and we’ve got to understand that, because we might not get this opportunity again.”
Focus, Intensity Are Key
The Celts now get to move on to the Eastern Conference finals against Miami, but Smart believes his club should be well aware by now that they can’t keep cheating elimination, they can’t lose games because they don’t come out with the requisite focus and intensity.
“We don’t have that luxury,” Smart said. “We screwed around early in this series, and it almost cost us. We screwed around in the last series against Atlanta, and it could have cost us. So, for us, we had to come out and make sure that there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that we were going to finish the job here. That’s the same attitude and mindset we have to have going forward.”
Though the Celtics would eventually lead by 30 and cruise to victory Sunday against Philly, it took a while for Horford to believe they had what it would take. The early engagement wasn’t enough. The game was tied, after all, at 55-55 when Tobias Harris made a 3-pointer to open the second half.
“Not really,” he told Heavy. “I knew that we were going to be in position. We were going to have a chance. But it’s one of those things where we had to take it to another level, and I feel like we did. Because the way it started, it was tense. It was tight. And once we just kind of got it going, that’s when we kind of hit our stride there.
“I just think it was great focus that we came out with, and I think we all understood that we couldn’t mess around. We understood that we needed to come out and be strong.”
And understand they must now keep doing the same to live up to this season’s potential — for another opportunity is not guaranteed.