After a dysfunctional 2018-19 season that ended with Kyrie Irving sabotaging the Boston Celtics in a second-round playoff elimination and forfeiting his commitment to re-sign with the iconic franchise, Al Horford decided on the safety of one lucrative $109 million bid from the Philadelphia 76ers goes to free agency.
Two seasons later, the lost veteran found his way to Boston, where the young Celtics he was leaving were preparing to spread their own All-Star wings, and together they delivered what Horford eluded in 14 seasons and 141 playoff games was, more than any other active player: his first appearance in the NBA Finals.
Horford anchored a dominant defensive performance against the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals Sunday night, and the three players whose careers he’s led at Boston — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart — provided enough offense to take a 100 to survive -96 streak win.
“Nobody deserves it more than this guy on my right, man,” said Brown, who spent the first three seasons of his career alongside Horford, sitting next to him on the post-game podium. “His energy, his demeanor, stepping in every day, being a pro, taking care of his body, being a leader, I’m proud to share this moment with a veteran, a mentor, a brother, a guy like to can Al Horford. He’s been great all season, really my whole career. I’m lucky to be able to share this moment with someone like him.”
Horford, whose maternal grandfather died before Boston’s heartbreaking Game 6 loss, fell to his knees as emotions took over in his first Conference Finals win in four tries. He leaned forward and yelled a single word into the hardwood of FTX Arena. “Yes,” he said repeatedly before teammates helped him to his feet.
“My grandfather was someone very close to me, someone I really care about,” Horford said, “and my mom, my family, was telling me all week to just go out and play. That’s what he would have expected me to do, just move on and try to stay focused and understand that he’s at peace now.
Horford became the biggest free-agent signing in Celtics history when he signed in 2016. His Atlanta Hawks had just beaten Boston in a first-round series, but they were defeated by LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference semifinals, and he saw what the Celtics were building. Boston had Isaiah Thomas, Smart, a hodgepodge of hard workers and the last vestige of the 2008 Celtics championship – two big lottery picks received by the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
Horford led the Celtics to the East Finals in 2017 and 2018, respectively the rookie years for No. 3 overall Brown and Tatum. Boston had traded Thomas for Irving and added Gordon Hayward between those two years, but season-ending injuries at both All-Stars left the Celtics with Brown and Tatum as their top scorers in a seven-game loss to who else but LeBron’s Cavs in the finals of the 2018 conference.
“Obviously when you lose those streaks it hurts and it’s tough,” Tatum said. “But you never forget it. We all have that in common. We’ve all been through those tough times and we remember how it felt.”
Meanwhile, Horford was the consummate professional. He was mocked nationally for losing to LeBron in four straight playoffs, and locally, where a Boston Sporttalk radio host dubbed him “Average Al” and ignored Horford’s contributions as a center allowing the Celtics to take the bottom from all five To defend and distribute positions from offensive. They just didn’t have the firepower around him to match LeBron’s size, at least not yet.
With James leaving the East and Irving undermining the Celtics, Horford faced another tough career choice between a reigning team with a sub-championship cap and the next young roster on the rise. He settled on Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the Sixers only to watch the developing trio of Tatum, Brown and Smart take Boston back to the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals where they lost to Miami in six games.
When Horford’s frontcourt partnership with Embiid fell through in Philadelphia, the five-time All-Star heard boos from Sixers fans and worse from their front office. They traded him along with a lightly protected first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a salary dump. The Thunder put Horford on hold in their quest for a big lottery win and his career came to an unceremonious end with no championship aspirations.
Only, the Celtics called again and needed him again to captain a fledgling side that went off course during a .500 season. Horford was available to anyone who could match his $27 million salary last summer, and nobody called until Boston offered Kemba Walker and a first-round pick in a deal planned by some analysis-oriented basketball players. Horford was the same as always, underrated.
The Celtics started this season on shaky ground, and first-year coach Ime Udoka reminded them of their instability with every downturn. Horford laid the groundwork for their defensive identity and relied on Tatum, Brown and Smart for offensive development. As necessary as Udoka’s brutally honest criticism was, Boston needed Horford’s steady hand to balance the emotions of a young team still finding their way.
“When he came back it gave us a sense of security,” Smart said of Horford. “We’ve got Al back there. He’ll always make the right play at both ends, he’ll reassure us, he’ll show us what we’ve been missing and he’ll help us learn the game even more. We appreciate everything he brings to this game – his mentality, his professionalism, and that’s the most important thing for us, the way he comes to work every day. We look up to that and try to integrate that into our lives and into our game.”
Their trust in each other led to a remarkable turning point. Horford was the senior in a fraternity that made the best team in basketball for the final four months of the regular season. Their bond with defense was as unbreakable as anything the league had seen since the last time the Celtics reached the Finals in 2010, and the rising stars saw their potential. Tatum made the All-NBA First Team, Smart was Defensive Player of the Year, and Brown received both All-NBA and All-Defensive team votes.
Just as important to Boston’s success was Horford again. Given the chance to reignite his career with a roster he helped build, they’ve lifted each other to heights no one could have imagined a year ago. They passed Kevin Durant’s Nets, dueled Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks and, yes, outlasted Jimmy Butler’s Heat.
“I’ve been part of a lot of great teams and I’m so proud of this group,” said Horford. “I have seen [Brown] Join the league, take steps, take levels. I have seen [Tatum], the same. I’ve seen Smart grow. It’s just something special to be with them and to be able to help them and be a part of it. I’m grateful to be in this position.”
All that’s left to do is raise the franchise’s 18th banner. Only the three-time Golden State Warriors champion stands in the way of Horford’s Hall of Fame legacy and the full potential for the roster he oversees.
“Every athlete’s dream is to get to that final stage and have a chance,” Smart said. “I was here in the Eastern Conference Finals for four years and got sent home every year. It feels really good, and it feels really good for Jayson and Jaylen. We’ve been together the longest – even Al, man. Al, I’m just happy for him. He’s been playing all these games and he’s working his ass off. He deserves it more than any of us.
We so rarely see second chances in sport, or ever in life, but these Celtics make the best of them.
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