BOSTON -- Early in the Boston Celtics' annual intrasquad scrimmage in front of season-ticket holders Friday night at TD Garden, Isaiah Thomas threaded a pass into the paint to a cutting Al Horford for a layup, offering a small glimpse of how the two might work together on the court this season.
The Celtics are hoping that the addition of Horford, who signed the richest free-agent contract in team history when he inked a four-year, $113 million deal in July, will help Boston take the next step in its quest to become a legitimate title contender. With Thomas and Horford, the Celtics believe they have a quality 1-2 punch that's complemented by an intriguing young core that provides Boston with quality depth.
In the 20 months since arriving at 2015's trade deadline, Thomas has evolved from an intriguing bench scorer to an All-Star point guard. But his transformation off the court might have been even more pronounced. By buying in fully to Boston's tradition and immersing himself in the community, Thomas emerged as the new face of the franchise. And, at 5-foot-9, his smaller stature perfectly represented Boston's underdog status as the team went from full-on rebuild to playoff mingler in a hurry under coach Brad Stevens.
After Thomas emerged as the alpha dog of Boston's roster, it was fair to wonder how the addition of another All-Star talent might affect the team's hierarchy. It was likely never going to be an issue because Thomas was at the forefront of Boston's recruiting efforts, and he spearheaded the Celtics' quest to attract the sort of elite talent that could take the team to the next level.
But, in Horford, the Celtics found a player who slides seamlessly into Stevens' system. Horford is also an All-Star who appears happy to cede the spotlight to Thomas.
"It’s so crazy to have a guy like that on the team that -- we shot together a couple days ago and he was just like, ‘Man, I’m here to make things easier for you. So just let me know what you need,'" Thomas said of Horford. "That’s just wonderful, especially a guy that has that much talent. My job is just making things easier for others, and he’s making it easier for me already."
Horford has repeatedly gushed about Boston's 17 title banners and the responsibility that comes with wearing the green jersey. The 30-year-old has maintained a low profile in camp and routinely offers high praise to Boston's younger players who have stood out in practices. And he's working hard to develop on-court chemistry with Thomas, 27, and the rest of his new teammates.
"I think it’s important that we have good team chemistry," Horford said. "And Isaiah is such a great player. It’s amazing the things he can do on the court. I’m here to make the game easy, not only for him, but all my teammates. I want to let them all know I have their back."
Added Horford: "[Former Florida] coach [Billy] Donovan taught me [the importance of chemistry] as soon as I stepped into camp. He always harped on making sure we’re always on the same page, that we’re feeding off each other, and that’s one of the things that feel like I add value. I try to be a team guy and try to help the team in whichever way that I can. Here they already had really good chemistry. It’s up to me to come in here and try to mesh with everybody and make everything work.”
Horford, like most of Boston's starters, had a brief and quiet night during Friday's scrimmage. Thomas did have a couple of strong drives at the basket, including a tough up-and-under finish after encountering traffic near the rim. But the session belonged to Boston's younger players on a night when 6,118 fans came out to watch a 70-minute session (almost doubling last year's attendance).
The Celtics practiced on the Garden floor earlier Friday, and Horford admitted before the scrimmage that it was "pretty cool" to be wearing green while looking up at the championship banners. Even though his salary will be $14.5 million more than the second-highest-paid Celtics player (Amir Johnson, $12 million) and roughly $20 million more than Thomas, Horford keeps stressing how he must acclimate his game to fit what Boston is doing.
"I gotta come in and play the right way, play with a lot of energy and compete," Horford said. "We’re trying to be the best team that we can here. It’s an honor to be able to call this home and play on this floor. I’m definitely excited."