2024 NBA Finals: Celtics' newest champions now get it — 'there's nothing like winning in Boston'

BOSTON — As Al Horford weighed his future as a free agent in the summer of 2016, Celtics executive Danny Ainge told him, "You can win championships in many places, but there's nothing like winning in Boston."

Eight years later, on his second tour of duty with the Celtics, the 38-year-old Horford made good on that promise as the roster's eldest statesman, helping Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — the all-world talents he shepherded to the game's grandest stage — deliver the franchise's record 18th NBA championship.

"That stuck with me from that meeting," said Horford, who contributed nine points and nine rebounds to the 106-88 win over the Dallas Mavericks. "I was like, 'Man, I'm trying to be great, and that's what I want.' The fact that it has come, it has happened — JT, JB stepping up in a big way and leading us — it's special."

It was Ainge who traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the final vestiges of Boston's last championship, for a cache of draft picks from the Brooklyn Nets in 2013. Two became Tatum and Brown. And it was Horford who served as their veteran, taking each to an Eastern Conference finals in their rookie seasons.

"Al Horford is a real-life legend and hero," said Brown. "It's been great to be his teammate."

The three of them, more than anyone else on this roster, are Celtics. Not just in the sense that they have played in Boston. They have won here now. They are in the club. Their numbers will be retired in the rafters of TD Garden, alongside the championship banner. Alongside Russell and Cousy, Havlicek and Cowens, Bird and McHale, there will be Tatum and Brown. And make no mistake: There will be Horford, too. He is one of them now.

As the minutes passed on Boston's blowout, close-out victory, 2008 Celtics champion Eddie House turned to this reporter and said, "Hey, Yahoo Sports, write this down: That is 18 of them now. You see him," he said, pointing to 1981 NBA Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell, "and me," he added, "and them," pointing to the parquet floor, where Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla was pulling his starters one by one from the game.

"We're all champions," said House.

Boston Celtics center Al Horford, center, and forward Jayson Tatum, front center left, celebrate with teammates near the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy after winning the NBA championship with a Game 5 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Monday, June 17, 2024, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Al Horford celebrates the franchise's record 18th NBA championship on Monday, June 17, 2024, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

This is what it means to be a member of the Celtics. All season long, Boston's rallying cry has been "DIFFERENT HERE," and it is. There is a brotherhood that runs through the history of the league, lined with championship rings, and everyone on this year's roster — from Jrue Holiday, Derrick White and Kristaps Porziņģis to Sam Hauser, Luke Kornet and Oshae Brissett — has become a member for life.

None more so than Tatum and Brown, who are only scratching the surface of their legacies in Boston.

"We've been through a lot," said Brown, who captured Finals MVP over Tatum by a 7-4 vote. "We've been playing together for seven years now. We've been through a lot, the losses, the expectations. The media have said all different types of things: 'We can't play together. We are never going to win.' We heard it all. But we just blocked it out, and we just kept going. I trusted him. He trusted me. And we did it together."

At 26 and 27 years old, respectively, Tatum and Brown spoke as if this was forever in the making, though they know it was longer for Horford. It only feels like forever because of how much adversity their Celtics have navigated — six Eastern Conference finals in Brown's eight seasons, five losses, including last year's embarrassment against the Miami Heat, and a blown 2-1 Finals lead to the Golden State Warriors in 2022.

"But all of those experiences led to here," said Brown. "All of the moments where we came up short, we felt like we let the city down, let ourselves down, is how we get to this moment. And it makes it feel even that much better that we had to go through all the journey, the heartbreak, the embarrassment, the loss, to get to the mountaintop. It's great. And shout out to all the supporters and the city of Boston."

Those losses take on a different light now that they have won. Gone is the criticism. After all those blown opportunities, dwindling leads that left everyone wondering if they were built for this, if Tatum and Brown could coexist, nobody can take this title away. They were built for it. They are coexisting — as champions.

Now, we are left to wonder what's left that they can accomplish. Now, we look back on all of those playoff losses and see playoff scars, healed over. Now, we see all they have done — 235 playoff games between them, more than most anyone ever their age — and must acknowledge mounting Hall of Fame résumés. Now, they are surpassing Celtics records held by legends, and you must accept they belong among them.

"They get scrutinized so much, and they get so much pressure put on them for not winning or making it to the Eastern Conference finals [six times in eight years], or even making it to the Finals and not getting over that hump," said Holiday. "I feel like people finally see the relationship that they have. They see that from the beginning, they have always done it together. They have never compared against each other. They have always been joyful and happy for each other. ... Hopefully it's a burden off of their shoulders.

"But another burden is doing it again."

The only legacy discussion now is how much these Celtics can add to it. Their playoff rotation is signed through next season, and it will be hard for any of them to leave Boston now that they never have to buy another drink in the city again. The only question is whether they can add more banners to the rafters.

"It took being relentless," said Tatum. "It took being on the other side of this and losing in the Finals and being at literally the lowest point in a basketball career that you could be, to next year, to the following year, thinking that was going to be the time, and coming up short again. People have said it before, but coming up short and having failures makes this moment that much better. Because you know what it feels like to lose. You know what it feels like to be on the other side of this and be in the locker room and hearing the other team celebrating, hearing them celebrate on your home floor. That was devastating.

"And now, to elevate yourself in a space that all your favorite players are in, everybody that they consider greats or legends have won a championship, and all of the guys I looked up to won a championship — multiple championships. So now I can, like, walk in those rooms and be a part of that. It's a hell of a feeling. This is more," he said, pausing, "I dreamed about what it would be like, but this is 10 times better."

This one is forever. The next one? This city expects it. That is just how it is here, and nobody understands that better than Horford and the two rising legends he mentored to this point. They are Bostonians now.