<
>

Celtics eager to integrate Al Horford, live up to rising expectations

Basketball is back and there are many reasons to be optimistic if you're a Boston Celtics fan. The Celtics made at a run at the two biggest free agents on the open market this summer and came away with one of them, adding four-time All-Star Al Horford to a young core that's shown intriguing development under coach Brad Stevens, including playoff appearances in each of the past two seasons.

Boston's starting five with Horford looked especially strong during the Celtics' seven-game preseason slate, and these last few days of practice have left Boston players antsy for the real games to arrive.

"I’m very encouraged. I’m very excited. Probably the most excited I’ve been as a player going into a season," Jae Crowder said. "I’m just ready to get after it and go to war with these guys and take on that journey."

Before the Celtics tip off the 2016-17 season with a visit from the Brooklyn Nets, here are the main storylines to keep an eye on this season:

The burden of expectations

The Celtics were the cute star-less underdogs who scrapped their way to the playoffs under their wunderkind coach the past two seasons. Well, Stevens is 40 now and, while he'd probably still get carded at a bar (if he ever pulled himself away from game film), his team is now widely predicted to be the one that pushes the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference.

With the addition of Horford, the All-Star ascension of Isaiah Thomas, and the continued development of the team's young core, Boston is projected to finish near 50 wins and penetrate deeper in the postseason than the last two years (where they won a total of two playoff games in a pair of first-round exits).

"I feel like everybody wants to live up to all the expectations. Coach always says, when you have expectations, that means you’re doing something right," Thomas said. "And that means the world sees something in this team. I think we can be -- I’m not saying we’re going to go out and win the championship, but we can contend. We can play at a high level. I can’t wait for opening night and things to really start counting."

Don't hassle the Horf

Horford became Boston's first free-agent splurge in nearly two decades when he inked a four-year, $113 million contract in July. Kevin Durant immediately stole all of the offseason headlines and -- in his preferred fashion -- Horford has floated quietly under the radar ever since signing his deal.

Without much fanfare, Horford had maybe the best preseason of any player in the league. Boston's net rating with him on the floor was plus 38.4 points per 100 possessions, which was 2.2 points better than Stephen Curry's net rating in Golden State and the highest in the league among all qualifiers. Horford averaged 10.2 points, 6 rebounds and 1.2 assists over 16.7 minutes in five preseason appearances. Stretch those out to per-36 averages and that's 21.9 points, 12.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game.

Horford, who took Atlanta to nine consecutive playoff appearances, has repeatedly said it simply feels right to be in Boston.

“I’m very happy," Horford said. "I just feel that Coach Stevens is a great coach. He’s really taking his time to kind of reel me in and get me up to speed."

Surviving injuries to start the year

Boston's starting five could be really special. And they're going to have to be. Boston's bench is shorthanded to start the season with Marcus Smart (ankle) and Kelly Olynyk (shoulder) both on the shelf. Both should be back in November, but that's still two of Boston's top seven contributors and maybe the Celtics' two best overall bench players.

Fortunately for Boston, Horford likes the depth of this team.

"It just reassures my decision when I see guys -- and I didn’t expect a guy like [second-year guard] Terry Rozier, for example, to have so much improvement from when we saw him in the playoffs until now," Horford said. "He’s a totally changed player, much, much more confident. That was one of my questions. I didn’t know who’s going to be the backup point guard and all that. I know we had some guys but he has really impressed me. Marcus Smart has impressed me even more probably. I know he’s injured right now, but just his energy, his toughness. I played against him, but I don’t think I really appreciated all that he brought to the team. So it’s something that really makes me feel good."

Eyes on #Netspick ... again

It's somewhat appropriate that the Celtics open the season against the Nets because they've been intertwined since the 2013 swap that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn. Boston has already collected on two of its draft picks, including James Young (17th overall in 2014; edged R.J. Hunter for the final spot on the roster this season) and Jaylen Brown (third overall in 2016; looks ready for rotation minutes even though he's still raw and just turned 20 this week).

The Celtics have the ability to swap draft positions with the Nets this year, no small luxury because the Nets are pegged to be one of the worst teams in the NBA. Consider this: ESPN's Basketball Power Index projects the Nets to finish with a league-worst 23 wins. BPI favors them in a mere four games out of their entire 82-game schedule. That just happens to be the same number of games the Philadelphia 76ers entered as BPI favorites last season, and they ultimately won 10 games and emerged with the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft.

The Nets also will deliver their 2018 first-round pick to Boston. So while Celtics players have pleaded indifference to the picks ("I wasn’t a first-round pick so I don’t care about first-rounders," Thomas quipped), the Nets will ensure a steady pipeline of young talent that could help Boston remain a contender deep into the future.