Six Eastern Conference Finals trips in eight years


Al Horford has been a part of four of those conference finalists — in 2018, when Tatum was a rookie, and the last three, after returning from a two-year hiatus.

Al Horford will be playing in his fourth Eastern Conference Finals with the Celtics (fifth overall), while Jayson Tatum is already in his fifth.

Above all else, their current situation demands a moment of appreciation, don’t you think?

Oh, sure, there are nitpicks from the Celtics’ 113-98 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Wednesday night, nitpicks that are genuine rather than the kind generated in a sports-radio lab for maximum mewling by the habitual misery-seekers among us.

There is plenty of time over the coming days to touch on some of those, the valid flaws and gripes that could recur as the opposition gets tougher and the spotlight brighter, just as there is time to acknowledge the many encouraging, even inspiring, developments for the Celtics in this game and series.

But first, the deserved appreciation, so deserved. The Celtics have reached the conference finals for the sixth time in eight years, including the last three. Jaylen Brown has been a part of all six of those teams, and when the Celtics face the Knicks or Pacers (you know it, I know it, and the American people know it, it is darned well going to be the Knicks) whenever the conference finals begin, it will be Jayson Tatum’s fifth appearance.

The Celtics have had three coaches in that span. They’ve done it with Isaiah Thomas reigning in the fourth quarter, they’ve done it with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward injured, they’ve done it in the bubble with balky-kneed Kemba Walker trying desperately to be the third star, and they’ve done it with Tatum and Brown getting better and better, perhaps not linearly, but in a way that should lead to unyielding respect for their work ethic and dedication.

Six conference finals in eight years. That’s an achievement, a job well done over and over again.

Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla, who mentioned gratitude a couple of times during his postgame press conference, had it right when he noted that it’s never easy to finish any postseason series, implying that such victories, even if they are not the ones that result in a banner and a parade, ought to be valued.

“Closeout games are tough,” he said. “There’s a level of stress, anxiety, desperation. It takes what it takes.

“Everybody wants to win until it’s really time to win. And then you have to [step] up and do a lot of [expletive] that you don’t want to do. At the end of the day, if you want to win, you have to do what it takes.”

No one did what it takes on Wednesday night more than Al Horford, and that was fitting in so many ways. Horford has been a part of four of those conference finalists — in 2018, when Tatum was a rookie, and the last three, after returning from a two-year hiatus in Philadelphia and Oklahoma City. He turns 38 on June 3, he’s nearly two years older than his coach, and he’s still seeking a championship ring after winning two at the University of Florida.

He is motivated, and in Game 5 it was downright inspiring to watch how that manifested in an all-time great playoff performance for a player of a certain age. Horford hit six 3-pointers, including an exclamation point in the final minute, scored 22 points, collected 15 rebounds, added 5 assists and 3 blocks, fired the ball off a Cavalier to save a possession, and made it clear he had no intention of returning to Cleveland for Game 6.

With his performance — which followed up a pair of games in Cleveland in which he was 0 for 10 from 3, stirring fears he was wearing down — he surpassed LeBron James as the oldest player in league history to record more than 20 points, 10 rebounds, 5 3-pointers, and 5 assists in a playoff game.

“Tonight you saw his gift,” said Mazzulla. “His gift is just passion, inspiration, toughness . . . Just the way he affected the game in different ways was awesome.

“[I’m] grateful for Al . . . it’s an honor to coach him.”

Horford acknowledged that he felt like he needed to provide something extra with a chance to close out the series.

“For me the biggest thing was bringing energy, bringing energy to our group . . . I knew it was going to take a lot more than me playing a normal game.”

While Horford was sensational, the win offered an intriguing look at the Celtics at their well-rounded best. Jayson Tatum finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists, and drilled a dagger 3-pointer to make the score 101-87. Brown played a poised game, taking just nine shots but dishing out seven assists. Derrick White scored 18 points and sparked the offense early. Jrue Holiday closed, with 11 of his 13 points in the fourth quarter.

Complaints? We have a few. Marcus Morris Sr., a stats-first player on the underachieving 2019 Celtics, dropped 25 points on his former team, which is about 23 more points than he should be expected to score in a playoff game at this phase of his career.

And it should be noted that the Celtics led by just 6 at halftime and 7 after three against a depleted Cavaliers team that was without star Donovan Mitchell for the second straight game. It took them a while to take control, and there were times when we wondered if they would.

They got the job done, and have marched to the NBA’s final four yet again. Do not mistake this appreciation as a premature coronation.

That, of course, comes with the 18th championship, which has been elusive, and the final and most relevant chapters of The Story of the 2024 Celtics are still to be written.

But so far, it’s been quite the page-turner, with quite a lot of encouraging foreshadowing. Don’t tell me you saw that Horford plot twist coming.

#Eastern #Conference #Finals #trips #years

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *