Horford Claims C’s Success Will Only Come with Sacrifice
BOSTON – Al Horford sunk into a courtside bench at the Auerbach Center at New Balance World Headquarters on a September afternoon, glistening with sweat and catching his breath from his first 5-on-5, intersquad pick-up game of the preseason.
Boston’s veteran center leaned back on the bench’s padded, grey backing and envisioned the possibilities that lie ahead with this group of Celtics.
“There’s so much talent, it’s almost unreal,” Horford told Celtics.com while shaking his head in disbelief.
The 32-year-old knows, however, not to pinch himself just yet.
It’s no secret that the 2018-19 version of the Boston Celtics is stacked with talent, but no matter how skilled the group may be, they must have the right collective attitude in order to succeed.
Loading up a team with talent means that players will need to make sacrifices. A player, for instance, may have been the go-to guy on a previous team, but on a squad full of All-Stars and future All-Stars, that role may fluctuate on any given night.
“We’re in a very unique position, and I feel like our guys sense that,” said Horford. “So, our mentality has to be putting what’s best for the team first. We all can bring a lot of different things, but our focus needs to be on what we do best and how we can impact the team to win.”
If there’s anyone who understands what it takes to win, it’s Horford. The 11-year NBA veteran has never missed a postseason in his life, and he also has two national championships to his name.
The University of Florida – where Horford won those two titles – is where he began to recognize how to properly utilize all of the strengths of a talented team.
Before college, Horford had been the star of the show at his high school in Grand Ledge, Michigan. But in Gainesville, he had to learn how to play alongside other gifted athletes, including future Draft Lottery picks Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah.
“Coach (Billy) Donovan talked to us before we started, and he was very clear in making us understand that winning was what was important,” said Horford. “Not to worry so much about individual numbers or try to look to other players to see what kind of numbers they’re producing, but just to focus on our group.”
Horford carried that mindset to Atlanta, where he played alongside as many as three other All-Stars in the same season with the Hawks. He said that particular group of teammates in 2014-15, which included Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague, stuck to their strengths offensively, while playing on a string on the defensive end. As a result of their collective selflessness, the Hawks that season became the first team in NBA history to go 17-0 in a calendar month, they earned the East’s top seed with a franchise-best 60-22 record and they made their first-ever trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
When he signed with the Celtics two summers later, Horford’s approach didn’t change one bit. He put his numbers aside to serve as one of the team’s primary facilitators and helped to lead its young core to back-to-back appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals.
This season’s team has a chance to advance even further.
Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving have both recovered from significant injuries and are on track to be 100 percent healthy by Opening Night.
Adding them back into a rotation that boasts Horford and other potential All-Stars in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum could make for a deadly starting five.
The bench unit also features a handful of players that have the talent to start on many NBA teams, including the likes of Aron Baynes, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis, among others.
“Teams like this, I feel, aren't supposed to happen,” Horford said with another shake of his head. “To have so many young guys with such big potentials, we’re just in a very unique situation. I’ve never been a part of anything like this."
However, with such talent comes the issue of playing time, which continues that conversation about sacrifice. The returns of both Hayward and Irving mean that many of the players who helped lead this team to the Conference Finals will see their roles reduced this season. But that is a sacrifice that they should be willing to make, believes Horford, as long as they understand the bigger picture that’s at stake.
“Whatever minutes we get, we have to make the most of them and make them count,” he said. “That’s how it’s going to work for us. That’s how we’re going to be successful. Everybody wants to play more, but we just have to be focused on winning and making the most of the minutes that we get.”
Fortunately, this group of Celtics seem to embrace such a mindset. Last season, they showcased their ability to overcome significant injuries and managed to fight through two rounds of the Playoffs before falling eight points shy of a trip to the NBA Finals. This was made possible by their collective ability to make the most of their opportunities, and by playing to each other’s strengths.
“I just think it’s something that we need to keep emphasizing and keep trying to play that way,” Horford said as he looked ahead to this season. “If we’re able to play the right way, play as a team, we’re going to have a lot of fun.”
If the Celtics do that, they will be well on their way to a successful campaign and Horford won’t be the only one pinching himself by season’s end.