Al Horford, Jayson Tatum on what’s different for Celtics this year


“The first Finals was very challenging.”

Al Horford and Jayson Tatum have helped the Celtics reach the NBA Finals for the second time in three years. Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Celtics are back in the NBA Finals, punching their ticket to the sport’s biggest stage for the second time in three years after sweeping the Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals.

Boston’s path to this year’s Finals was much different, though, than when the group made it there in 2022. The C’s held the best record in the NBA during the regular season, winning 64 games and posting one of the best point differentials in league history.

The Celtics carried their regular-season dominance into the postseason. They went 12-2 through the Eastern Conference bracket, avoiding a Game 7 after playing in four over the last two years.

As many members of the Celtics’ core prepare for their second Finals appearance, Al Horford admitted that the grueling path to the 2022 matchup against the Warriors hampered them.

“The first Finals was very challenging,” Horford told reporters. “If you look at our route, that first-round series against Brooklyn was a hard-fought series even though we swept them. Then, a seven-game series against Milwaukee. The champs, took them to the limit. Then, right away, a seven-game series against Miami. Literally, two, three days off and having to play Golden State in the Finals. It was a lot for our group. It was very overwhelming. It felt like we were trying to catch on the whole time.”

Horford, who’s played in the third-most playoff games without a title in NBA history as he prepares for his 38th birthday on June 3, acknowledged that the difficult path in 2022 motivated the Celtics to take care of business in quicker fashion.

“Now, we’ve put ourselves in a position in the regular season to have home-court advantage,” Horford said. “With these series, we’re taking advantage of the opportunities and playing them out the right way. I feel like we’re more mature, obviously, and we’re in a better place.”

While Horford held the record for most playoff games without a Finals appearance (141) before the Celtics’ trip in 2022, Jayson Tatum was on the opposite end of the spectrum. He was 24 at the time, making him and Jaylen Brown one of four duos that were 25 or younger to lead their team in scoring and reach the NBA Finals over the 40 previous seasons.

Tatum didn’t have the best showing in the 2022 NBA Finals, scoring 21.5 points per game on 36.5 percent shooting from the field in the six-game loss to the Warriors. He said he’s learned from “our experience” this time around.

“That playoff run was a lot of up and downs,” Tatum said. “Obviously, we fell short of the ultimate goal. Last year, we lost in the conference finals. I think we just applied everything that we’ve learned to this season and this postseason and it’s working really well.”

One noticeable difference between this year’s Celtics team and the 2022 group is how they play in close games. After notably struggling in close playoff games over the last two years, the Celtics have won all four of their clutch games this postseason (games that are within five points in the final five minutes). They trailed in the final minutes in three of their wins in the Eastern Conference finals as well.

Tatum remarked that the team has been “decisive” in those late-game moments, but is playing it cool emotionally with each game.

“The playoffs is like an emotional roller coaster,” Tatum said. “Trying to find the balance between the wins and the losses, trying to stay even-keeled for however long you’re playing, is important. The team that does that best usually has a ton of success.”

The run to the Finals marked a strong turnaround for Brown compared to what happened in last year’s Eastern Conference finals. Brown scored just over 19 points per game in the series loss to the Heat, committing eight turnovers in Game 7.

Brown wound up winning the Larry Bird Trophy for MVP of the Eastern Conference finals this time around. He hit the game-tying shot in Game 1 to send it to overtime as he averaged 29.8 points per game in the series.

As his stat line suggests, Brown thinks things have changed for this Celtics group as they prepare for their second Finals appearance.

“We feel like we were a different team than we were last year and the year before that,” Brown said. “I know everybody wants to continue to pigeonhole us on what happened in the past. But we’ve had a different team every single year, different coaches. We’ve had like, three coaches in the last five years. Still, people want to make feel like it’s the same, it’s the same, it’s the same.

“Time has gone by. Experience has been gained. I think we are ready to put our best foot forward.”

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