CELTICS SET FOR UK SWING

Al Horford and coach Brad Stevens give us the Celtics lowdown ahead of their London visit.

Q. The start of the season so far for Boston has been very, very good. You’re currently in first place in the Eastern Conference. Do you think that this season you really have all the tools to fight against Cleveland in the postseason and to try, of course, to reach the NBA Finals?

AL HORFORD: Yeah, I mean, I feel like we’ve been playing really good basketball, like you said. I feel like we have a really young group that our guys just keep getting better as the season goes along. As a group, we’re going to keep getting better, and I do feel like we have what it takes to contend for a championship.

 

Q. You’re playing the Cavs on Wednesday. Your thoughts about playing against them again? And second, talk about how the young guys have been able to help you immediately, from Aron Baynes to Jayson Tatum to Jaylen Brown to the other young guys on the team.

AL HORFORD: It’ll be a fun matchup tomorrow, to go against Cleveland and see some of the former teammates. It’s going to be very competitive. We’re excited about the challenge.

I’ve been very encouraged by how quickly some of our younger guys have been able to come along and help us as a team. Part of our success is because they’ve been able to do what Coach [Brad Stevens] is asking of them. They’ve been put in tough positions, and they’ve been able to handle it really well. I feel like they’re going to continue to get better, and I’ll be very eager to see how we’re looking at the end of the year because I feel like they’ll be much more comfortable and we’ll be better as a group.

Q. Your thoughts about playing the Cavs tomorrow, the first time since the opening-night meeting where you lost Gordon Hayward like a minute in, and things you learned there that you can use for this one. And is there concern that your young guys have been playing so well and are so ready to contribute that they’d be gassed or hitting the wall later in the season?

BRAD STEVENS: I think that you always think about that every single day and what you’re preparing to do. There’s a reason why we haven’t practiced much over

the last 60 days, is because we didn’t want to add the extra wear and tear. We would manage it through the games. We’ve got, I think, one guy on our team in the top 50 in minutes in the NBA. So I feel like we’ve managed that well, and we’ve asked guys to be very forthright with us about how they’re feeling so we can manage it even better.

Now we have a little bit more chance to practice. We’ll be on the court a little bit more on off days, but we’ll still do so with the big picture in mind. Everything that we’re always doing from a coaching standpoint and a sports standpoint is all geared towards trying to navigate the long season, maximize each moment, but then be ready to be your best at the end of the year.

I think as far as the Cavs go, they’re the class of the East. They’ve been the class of the East for the last two and a half years, and everybody, including us, is chasing them.

Q. What’s it been like to play with Aron Baynes this year, and what’s he brought to the lineup? Also, what are your thoughts on the way the team has handled the constant sort of changes in your lineup and the different sort of bumps and bruises throughout your road this season?

AL HORFORD: Yeah, playing with Aron Baynes has been a lot of fun, not only on the court but off the court. He’s a great teammate. He’s the kind of guy that you want to have on your side because he’s going to play the right way. He’s going to compete. And he really takes a lot of pressure off of me on the defensive end. I’m able to get out and run a little more and do different things.

Going to your second question, I think that one of the strengths of our team is the ability of always being able to change. Coach has challenged us a lot, changing lineups, because of, like you said, injuries or things. But I’ve felt like our team has handled that really well. Guys are not making excuses. We’re stepping up to the challenge, and we’re trying to make the most of what we have.

Q. Former Celtics legend Kevin Garnett often cites a preseason trip to Rome as the moment the title- winning 2008 team truly connected. Obviously, we know how that ended. How much do you relish an opportunity for the team to spend time in London together, and what do you think it can do for such a young group of guys?

BRAD STEVENS: Well, I think that’s a good point. You know, it’s one of the reasons why we actually — we very rarely in the last couple of years have left our practice facility to do anything in the preseason. But we went away to a college about an hour and a half away to spend time together, eat meals together, do things together at the start of training camp, with a condensed training camp this year, with only three weeks to get ready for our first game, and knowing all the while that we have this trip ahead of us to do the same thing.

I think it’s really important. It’s important for us from a practice standpoint. It’s important for us from a spending-time-together standpoint. And we’ve got to balance well the preparation and time spent together and the opportunity to see the sights for a day or two. I think that’s something that I really want to give our guys a chance to do.

Q. What have you learned about Kyrie Irving that has made you improve your game?

AL HORFORD: Kyrie is a great competitor. He’s a guy that has proved that he can play at a really high level, and I think that he’s made our team better. He has, in his own way, challenged me to be better, especially to be more aggressive on the offensive end, and just striving to be a better player. So it’s been a lot of fun being able to play alongside him.

Q. We know Kyrie Irving’s one of the best players in the league. I would like to know where do you think he can get better — defence, leadership?

BRAD STEVENS: I think he can get better in every area on the court, and I think the best players in the league consistently have that focus. If you look at the last few MVPs in the league, especially as you go through [Stephen] Curry and then [Russell] Westbrook, the jump they made from the year before to their MVP year was as big as anybody. I think sometimes we look at most improved players as people that come off the bench and then start or go from not playing to a sixth man role, and we miss the fact that oftentimes the best players in the league are the most improved players from year to year, and there’s a reason why they’re where they are.

Kyrie works the right way. He’s got a great attitude about it. He wants to be great. He doesn’t take for granted what he’s already achieved. He works to be great the next day. And that’s why I think he’ll keep getting better.

Q. In September, you were quite optimistic about what the Celtics could achieve this season, even though there was a lot of doubt based on changes that happened during the offseason. Do you think you can have fun being part of a successful team, or are you too involved in the process of winning night after night to enjoy the progress made by the Celtics?

AL HORFORD: I think the focus always has to be on the night tonight, but I do sit back and look at the big picture. We’ve had a lot of adversity as a group, a lot of guys that have never played in the NBA that have come in and had an impact. I look at all that and I do appreciate the progress and how well we’ve played. But then also at the same time, I always bring myself back down, and it’s important for us to focus on the game to game and the process and just continue to get better. And I think that’s the key for our group.

Horford missed out when the Hawks came to London in 2014

Q. You mentioned you want the guys to take in some of the sights in London. How different is the prep for a road trip like this to one of the other ones you would do during the regular season in terms of different time zones, different climate, different fan base, different arena to what most of the guys have played in before?

BRAD STEVENS: Well, these guys are so used to playing in big arenas and special venues that we don’t give a second thought to that. I think it’s more the opportunity we do get to practice at least once or twice there, and we get to work on some things we need to work on. I mean, a lot of times in the NBA you’re playing one night, hopping on a plane, playing somewhere else the next and then flying out. This is the most unique part about this trip, other than the fact that it’s across the ocean in London, is the fact that we’re actually going to be in a city for a couple of days before we play and have a chance to work together.

So that’s a real unique part from a travel perspective from a preparation perspective. But everything else will be what I would say is pretty similar to the norm.

Q. You missed the chance to play in London when the Hawks came over a few years ago. Does that actually make it even more satisfying that you get the chance to actually come over here this time?

AL HORFORD: Yes. I’m very excited. As soon as we found out earlier this summer we were going to play in London, my wife and I were just ecstatic, very happy about it. I’m really trying to make the most out of the trip. We’ve been to London before. We love the city. So we’re looking forward to spending a couple days over there.

Q. What is it like working with such a young, talented group? Also, what it is like to be compared to Gregg Popovich because of the impact you’re having?

BRAD STEVENS: Well, first and foremost, I really enjoy coaching this group. We have a long way to go. I don’t think we’re playing at the level of a 60-win team, so we’ll find out how good we are when everything is done.

As far as being compared or talked about in the same breath as Coach Popovich, I would have to check the source and tell them they probably don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m not in that ballpark, and I’m pretty cognizant of that. This is a league that is incredibly humbling to be a part of because the players and coaches are so good.

Every single day you have to stay on your toes just to survive, and I think that that’s something that you don’t take for granted.

This is a difficult task against the best of the best. To be compared to somebody like Pop, again, it’s flattering, but I don’t take it too seriously because I know how far away I am from a guy like him.

Q. How important is it for the players and the league to play overseas?

BRAD STEVENS: I think we all recognize the impact of the NBA but certainly the impact of basketball across the world. I think of all the many incredible things that basketball has given to me, it’s been the opportunity to go to different places because of the game. When I was a college player, I played in four different countries in Europe. When I coached at Butler, we took our team to Finland. We took our team to Italy. We had set up a trip to go to Australia right before I left.

As part of the NBA, I’ve already gotten a chance to coach in Madrid and Milan and also go on an NBA Cares trip to Johannesburg, and now we get to come to London. Without basketball, I don’t get to go to any of those places.

To me, it’s just another thing to speak to why we’re so thankful to get an opportunity to do what we do, and kind of, I guess, the global impact of the game and how we’re all tied by the love of the game, and I think that that for a basketball junkie like me is the fun part of it.

 Q. Events like NBA London speak to the ever- increasing international culture within the NBA. Do you think that’s part of the reason the league is in such a good place?

BRAD STEVENS: I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s one of the coolest parts of my job. I mean, we have a player from the Dominican Republic, we have a player from Germany, we have a player from Australia, we have a player from France, we have a player that was born in Egypt. It’s a special thing to be around people from all over the world working toward one common goal. That’s why people love sports, because we get a chance to see that kind of intentional pursuit, and it’s certainly a great part of the NBA, especially with all the different backgrounds on every team.

The Philadelphia 76ers host the Boston Celtics at The O2 in London on Jan. 11 as part of NBA London Game 2018. The game is live on NBA League Pass.

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