Chris Forsberg

Savoring an important checkpoint on Celtics' quest for Banner 18

The Celtics are back in the East Finals for the sixth time in eight years.

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There is one very obvious goal for the 2023-24 Boston Celtics. So, despite the overwhelming success this team has enjoyed in winning 72 of 92 games over the past 204 days, it’s easy to get caught up in what’s next instead of savoring the smaller triumphs along the way.

The Celtics completed their second gentleman’s sweep of the 2024 playoffs on Wednesday night, ending the Cleveland Cavaliers’ season with a Game 5 victory inside TD Garden. The series undeniably lacked for drama, with the Celtics dominating an undermanned Cavaliers squad outside a Game 2 stumble at home.

But the emotions that poured out at the end of Game 5 were a friendly reminder that we shouldn’t take this for granted. Sure, it only seems like the Celtics have a standing reservation in the Eastern Conference Finals. Jaylen Brown is about to play in that round for the sixth time in eight years. But getting to this point is never promised.

Winning eight playoff games is an accomplishment, even if we’ll only judge the Celtics season a success if they win eight more.

Such is the burden of success. But given that the Celtics will have at least three days off — and maybe as much as five — while waiting for their next opponent, there is an opportunity to briefly appreciate their playoff dominance through two rounds.

For maybe the first time this postseason, TD Garden truly purred with the sort of playoff intensity that has become standard this time of year. Jaylen Brown glowed while delivering a revenge chest slap after a big Jayson Tatum fourth-quarter 3-pointer, while Al Horford delivered one of the more emphatic 37-year-old fist pumps in NBA history while capping his magnificent Game 5 effort.

Amid the celebration, on the baseline near the visitor’s bench, fans held up a long sign that read, “Who wants Boston next?” Fans in both Miami and Cleveland had boldly requested that matchup.

Careful what you wish for.

Similar chants will be heard in either New York or Indiana. The Knicks hold a 3-2 lead over the Pacers with Game 6 on Friday night in Indianapolis. Boston will meet the winner of that series in an East Finals that seems likely to start Tuesday but could shuffle up to Sunday afternoon if a couple remaining series finish in six games.

The break will afford Horford a chance to jump back in his hot tub time machine after a turn-back-the-clock performance in which he posted 22 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and three blocks over 35 minutes in Wednesday’s series-clinching win.

Horford, who struggled mightily with his shot both throughout the series and early in Game 5 as the Cavaliers challenged him to shoot, finished 8 of 16 shooting while making 6 of his 13 3-point attempts. He was a team-best plus-26 in plus-minus.

It’s clear how much Horford yearns for that elusive NBA title.

“He just kind of sets the tone as somebody that's at this stage of his career and his age doing all these things; there's really no excuse for the rest of us,” said Tatum.

For years, Horford has steadied the Celtics and fueled past playoff charges while jousting with MVPs like Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Maybe he’ll get a chance to do the same with another MVP in Nikola Jokic in a couple weeks. But he has more pressing concerns regardless of next opponent. Horford is vital to Boston’s title quest, particularly with fellow big man Kristaps Porzingis still working his way back from a calf injury.

Horford had family surrounding the court as he capped his monster Game 5 effort. His wife, Amelia, was taking a video from the baseline during Horford's emphatic fist-pump celebration, while his father, Tito, sat near owner Wyc Grousbeck. Horford, despite some up-and-down play against the Cavaliers and struggling at times to negate the quickness of players like Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland as they attacked from the perimeter, had told his father he was going to be in attack mode in Game 5.

He told no lies.

The Cavaliers finished 6 of 20 shooting (30 percent) when Horford was the primary defender. Garland scored just six points on 3-of-12 shooting with Horford as the primary defender, including three blocked shots. No one seemed to appreciate the magnitude of another closeout win more than Horford.

"It's special when you're here at the Garden,” said Horford. "This is something I just don't take for granted, the energy of the fans. Our fans, they love the Celtics. They want us to play hard. They want us to play the right way, and I just felt very connected with them tonight.”

Al Horford says his relationship with the fans is "special" and something he doesn't take for granted.

Because there are airwaves to fill, some will fret how relatively breezy the Celtics’ path back to the East Finals has been. That overlooks how good this team is and how poor they’ve made opponents look. Beyond their maddening Game 2 letdowns, they’ve essentially dominated both series against the Heat and Cavaliers.

But these Celtics need not apologize for that dominance. The East Finals will present new challenges, regardless of opponent, and Boston must play better than we’ve seen to this point. They are capable of being so much better.

The end of Game 5 against Cleveland was a reminder of just how quickly they can turn it up, how these Celtics can dominate when their energies are focused on the ultimate prize.

Winning a conference semifinal series is simply a checkpoint on this journey. But the Celtics sure seemed to savor the moment. The page will almost certainly be turned and probably before these words even reach your screen.

There are loftier goals to fulfill. But we should all try to savor the journey. After all, it’s all those quests that came up short that would make Boston getting over the final hump all that more endearing.

“People might think it's a given that we're supposed to be here, but I give a lot of credit to everybody in the front office, the coaching staff, the trainers, the guys that handle the equipment, the ball boys, the cooks, the chefs, the security team — we're all in this together,” said Tatum.

“And I mean that. Everybody has an effect on each other, and we all impact each other to help winning and build this culture that we have, and everybody should be proud of themselves.

"Obviously it's not the end-all, be-all. We want to win a championship. But we're doing something right.”

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