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On verge of No. 1 seed, Celtics ‘have a special group,’ Al Horford says

WALTHAM, Mass. — For the better part of the past month, Boston Celtics players, following the lead of process-oriented head coach Brad Stevens, have been careful not to suggest they're focused on anything but the next game. Oh sure, Isaiah Thomas has joked about being obsessed with the standings, and teammates have been well aware of where Boston stands in the hunt for premium seeding.

But when pressed on these matters, the Celtics almost always shift the focus back to the task at hand, often noting how the most important game is the next one.

Maybe that's why it was notable that Al Horford allowed himself to peek ahead, even if briefly, during Tuesday's practice.

"These are the playoffs that I’ve looked forward to the most, probably since I’ve been in this league," Horford said, unsolicited, after being asked an otherwise benign question about Kelly Olynyk's rebounding.

To be clear, this wasn't Horford looking past Wednesday's regular-season finale. The Celtics can lock up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference with a victory over the visiting Milwaukee Bucks, and Horford had already noted his primary focus was on Boston using the game as another opportunity to get better before the postseason arrives.

But that Horford, who typically is undemonstrative, made it a point to express his excitement for the postseason was telling. When you consider this will be his ninth trip to the postseason and that he was part of 60-win, top-seeded teams during his nine seasons in Atlanta, his words carry even more heft.

"I feel very strong about this group. I think we have a special group," Horford said. "I can’t wait for us to get started [with the playoffs]."

The Celtics have some business to take care of before they can turn their full attention to the postseason. Boston got some positive news Tuesday when the Bucks, via their game notes, announced Giannis Antetokounmpo, Matthew Dellavedova, Khris Middleton and Tony Snell were all not with the team and expected to rest during Wednesday's finale.

Al Horford, 42, played in 74 playoff games with the Hawks but says he's anticipating his first postseason with the Celtics more keenly than any of his previous trips. Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports

Stevens reaffirmed Tuesday the Celtics have no plans to rest any of their players. Boston has dealt with so many injuries this season that Stevens often notes most guys got forced rest while sidelined. But the Celtics have also managed minutes well and feel comfortable with where they stand, health-wise, heading into Game 82. Simply having their full roster available is encouraging.

Stevens is almost certainly sick of answering questions about seeding and rest. On Tuesday, during a morning radio appearance on ESPN's Mike & Mike, he was pressed on both matters; those topics were broached again at practice. Not since the early days of his Boston tenure, when he was peppered with questions about making the transition from college, has Stevens so obviously tired of a storyline.

"We just play the game ahead of us. That’s all we focus on," Stevens said at practice. "It is what it is after 81 games. Then we’ll know where we’re headed, with regard to who we’re playing this weekend. We’re just focused on trying to play well, and so we haven’t put a lot of talk into anything bigger than the one game."

It's prudent to remember that, regardless of Wednesday's outcome, the Celtics' season will not be judged on where they finish in the East standings. But the benefits of that top spot are undeniable. The Celtics have struggled mightily against Toronto this season, and earning the top spot would help them avoid the Raptors in Round 2. (And Boston, if it were lucky enough to advance into the latter rounds of the East playoffs, could certainly benefit if the Raptors were to push the Cavaliers in a potential conference-semifinals matchup).

After all the injuries endured and the up-and-down nature of the 2016-17 season, it's clear the Celtics, entering the final day of the regular season, are reveling in having control of their own destiny in the quest for the No. 1 seed. Obtaining the top spot gives Boston the best possible chance of making the postseason run many of the players from the past two Celtics playoff teams believe they are capable of.

"I feel like now we feel like we can win," Jae Crowder said. "It’s just about us going out there and doing it each and every night. I just think our mentality has changed a little bit."

Added Avery Bradley: "Two years ago, Cleveland kind of punked us a little bit. … Last year we learned from those mistakes [against Atlanta], though we still fell short. Any situation we’re put in, I feel we’ll handle it as a team — the players and the coaches."

The future is bright in Boston. The Celtics could emerge Wednesday night with the No. 1 seed in the East and have already locked up the best odds at the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, thanks to the pick swap with the cellar-dwelling Brooklyn Nets.

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The dream scenario for Boston would have the team still playing on May 16, the projected start date of the Eastern Conference finals and the night of the 2017 draft lottery, when Boston will have a 25 percent chance at that top pick. The rest of the league couldn't help but take notice of the Celtics at that point, and, with potential to maneuver into max cap space this summer, there's the possibility for a true leap to contender status next season.

But Stevens and his group don't want to hear that chatter. They're focused on the next game. And when that's over, they'll finally find out who awaits in the opening round, and their focus will shift immediately to Game 1 of that series.

And then we'll find out if this team is as special as Horford believes it is.

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