Heading into the postseason, the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks seemed to be on a collision course for the Eastern Conference Finals. Boston burst onto the scene early in the year, and Milwaukee followed that up with a 16-game win streak in the middle of the season to overtake the Celtics for the top seed. Everything pointed toward a matchup between the two titans.
The Miami Heat had other plans.
The second eight seed to ever reach the conference finals, Miami doesn’t have Giannis Antetokounmpo or a title in the last three years, but they’ll present the Celtics with their own challenges.
“We got some experience, but that Miami team is looking to atone for last year,” Jaylen Brown said at Boston’s practice this afternoon. “They’re going to come out playing hungry and come out fighting. We got to be the harder playing team.”
With Jimmy Butler and Erik Spoelstra leading the charge, the Heat are one of the league's most experienced, hard-nosed teams. Boston has met them in the conference finals in two of the past three seasons, and each matchup proved to be an absolute war.
Last year, the Celtics finally broke through and made it to the NBA Finals—the first trip there for every player on the roster. This time around, all those same players have the necessary experience, but so does Miami.
And while they’ll be without Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo, the Heat still have all the same players and coaches who’ve been there before.
“It’s not the same team as last year,” said Brown. “Jimmy is Jimmy, and Spo is still Spo, but we got to make sure that we’re aware of everybody else.”
Butler played in the 2020 Finals, as did Bam Adebayo and Duncan Robinson. Kyle Lowry won a championship with the Toronto Raptors in 2019. Kevin Love, who joined the team via the buyout market this year, has been to four NBA Finals, winning one in 2016. Spoelstra is arguably one of the greatest coaches in league history, with five Finals appearances and two titles.
Jayson Tatum and Brown finally made the Finals last season, giving them invaluable experience that will help them for the rest of their careers. But while they may be the two best players on the team, the Celtics are still looking to their vets for leadership. More specifically, they’re looking to Al Horford.
“I think the guy we’ve followed all season, our leader is Al Horford,” said Malcolm Brogdon. “And I think he’s going to continue to lead us.”
Before Boston’s ECF victory birth last year, Horford held the record for most playoff games without a Finals appearance. He’s the oldest, most experienced player on the Celtics, and he’s accepted a role as the team’s leader.
“There was a point today in practice where it was a little light,” said Brogdon. “Practice was light, and guys were a little loose. Al brought us together in the middle of practice and just told us to tighten it up. And I think it’s those constant reminders from our leader that are going to help us stay poised, start the series poised, and really lock in.”
At this level, behind most young stars is a veteran leading the way. The Golden State Warriors traded for Andre Iguodala to help their young core win a title. It took the LeBron James-led Heat two seasons to gel and gain the necessary experience to win together. Even players like PJ Tucker and Brook Lopez can be credited for helping Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks finally break through.
Horford isn’t demanding his place at the head of the table. He’s simply helping the Celtics in the best way he can. The team respects him, and more importantly, Tatum and Brown respect him.
“You know you have a special leader when guys like Jayson Tatum, a top-5 player in the world, and Jaylen Brown, another top player in the world, listen to him,” said Brogdon. “They’re quiet. They listen to him. They want his feedback. They want his leadership. So, Al’s been that special leader for us all season.”
Having a leader like Horford will be crucial in a series against Miami. Every team presents its own challenges, and with the Heat, a lot of that will be mental.
For as clutch as Butler is, as great of shooters as Robinson and Max Strus are, and as defensively sound as Adebayo is, the Heat win games because of their mental fortitude. They never back down from a challenge and are always ready for the next play. They refuse to live in the past.
That’s been an issue for the Celtics this season. At times, they’ve allowed the referees to get in their way. They’ve let poor offensive execution affect their defense and vice versa. They’ve built up big leads just to take their foot off the gas.
“They have a good team, good coach, experience, been around a long time, and it’s two teams that are really, really physical,” said Joe Mazzulla. “So, in situations like this, we know each other’s strengths, we know each other’s weaknesses. It’s who’s going to bring the mindset and who’s going to bring the physicality.”
Miami will always be ready to pounce, chomping at the bit to capitalize on Boston’s mistakes. Horford’s leadership will be a necessary commodity, as the level-headed veteran is able to keep the Celtics in check better than anyone else.
With Tatum and Brown at the helm, the Celtics have the talent to take down the Heat. But they need to win the mental battle, too. And with Horford manning the sails, that should be their ultimate goal.
“They’re a well-rounded group that out-toughs most teams they play,” said Brogdon. “But that’s not going to happen with us.”