For several years now, the Boston Celtics have positioned themselves to take a leap in the Eastern Conference. The Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce trade, a theft that will go down in the annals of all-time one-sided trades, netted Boston a package of first round picks from the Brooklyn Nets that will continue into 2018. The plan was simple: the Celtics could stockpile young talent, attract free agents and have the flexibility to either use the draft assets in trade to acquire a superstar, or perhaps count on the Nets to continue to be terrible and land themselves a franchise player in the lottery.
Some might not consider Al Horford the flashy "superstar" Boston's been looking for, but he's helping the team's plan come to fruition.
After missing nine games with a concussion, the 30 year-old Horford -- signed to a four-year, $113 million deal this summer -- returned last Saturday and led the Celtics to their third straight victory on the road on Wednesday against Brooklyn (before Boston fell to San Antonio 109-103 at home on Saturday). Horford scored 17 points, grabbed five rebounds, dished out eight assists and added two blocked shots. He's the first Celtics player to reach those numbers in three straight games since Larry Bird in 1990. After a middling start, Boston is starting to turn into the team many envisioned them to be coming into the season.
Teammates are noticing Horford's impact, and true to his understated self, it's coming from his selfless play and in the locker room.
"It's all the little things that he does and how he gets the ball moving," Avery Bradley said. "It's so contagious. He's a leader. He speaks up. Sometimes the ball sticks. For Al to say something and for us to actually go out and move the ball around and it starts with him. It means a lot."
The Celtics have been the team that's one star away, but even before landing Horford they've put together a core group that can be a perennial playoff team in the East. Isaiah Thomas is the team's sparkplug at point guard. Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart and Bradley for the team's defensive core. Jaylen Brown has flashed plenty of potential on both ends of the floor early in his rookie season. With the departure of Evan Turner, Terry Rozier has stepped in and filled a role off the bench.
After a slow start, the Celtics are talking like a team that knows they're rounding into form as they approach the quarter mark of the regular season.
"Everybody's starting to click with each other," Smart said. "Everybody's starting to use each other and see what each other's tendencies are and get everybody in their right spots to succeed."
"It's getting easier," Thomas added. "We're starting to mesh a little better. It's still going to take some time because guys have been out, but at the same time we're getting back to our ways on the defensive end and we're playing unselfishly offensively, so those are two big positives that we need to be successful."
The Celtics aren't putting any specific goals on this season yet, but another playoff appearance might not be enough to satisfy the fan base or the front office. The addition of Horford and the internal development of the core group means getting past the first round should be a goal. If they come up short again, the patient rebuilding plan set forth by Ainge might be eschewed for something else. There are still plenty of moving pieces on this team, and even with the addition of Horford, the Celtics might not be done adding more top-heavy talent to the roster.
For now, though, the Celtics are hoping Horford is the difference-maker they need.