MIAMI — Before the game that could define his career, Al Horford was reminiscing. He’d had a great journey over the years, made some deep playoff runs and found himself in Oklahoma City a year ago.
During his time with the rebuilding Thunder, Horford was recharging for one more shot at greatness. This time last year, all he had was time. He was waiting for his moment, cherishing the beautiful parts of his life as basketball had to wait. A year later, in the biggest moment of his career, he found himself looking back at that period.
“On the phone, I would look at photos from a year ago, exactly what I was doing at the moment, and today my son actually graduated from kindergarten,” Horford said. “So I remember that we had pictures for him, and I picked him up from school, and we had the cupcakes and we had all this stuff. So it’s like perspective for me, like I always look back and see where I was just day to day. I’m just very grateful to be in this position with these guys.”
Horford joined a team with continuity and brought a different sense of stability. He became a symbol of the principles that once made the Celtics the league’s great upstart project, that made them ambitious rather than gluttonous. As his team has experienced incredible ebbs and flows this postseason, and especially in one of the most erratic conference finals in recent memory, Horford showed why he is the foundation upon which the Celtics are built.
“It’s incredible what he’s done all season. Came into training camp in extremely great shape, chip on his shoulder, prideful, wanted to come back to Boston,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “For him to play 44 minutes at this stage of his career and lay it all out there guarding bigs, smalls and everything in between, his leadership goes without saying. A vocal guy but does a lot by example, and I think everybody kind of ties into him.”
Yet in the final moments of a grueling marathon series that pushed him to his limit, his fate was staring him in the face, but it was no longer in his hands. As Jimmy Butler rose for the go-ahead 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter Sunday, time stood still. Horford’s career was flashing before his eyes.
The 35-year-old had returned to the team he once carried to this same moment years ago, looking for redemption. With Robert Williams III and Marcus Smart hurt throughout the postseason, he had somehow held together the league’s best defense. He had given everything he had left to finally get to the place he’d worked toward for 15 years, knowing this might be his best and last chance to get there.
The Celtics had done just about everything they could to finally break through to the NBA Finals, then suddenly they were watching their fate hanging in the hands of a player who has been endlessly heroic since the series reached the brink.
“When he shot that, I was like, ‘Man, what the hell?’” Jaylen Brown said.
Horford didn’t know what to think. He felt Butler was going for the shot, but he knew the Heat star could have just faked it and driven to the rim for another three-point play. So he loaded up in his stance and did just enough to ensure fate finally fell the Celtics’ way.
“I was like, ‘Let me contest the best way that I can.’ He got a good look at it, and it was nerve-racking. It was nerve-racking,” Horford said. “He pulled up, and anything could have happened there.”
But it hit the rim, and Horford grabbed that rebound with 14 seconds left, then did it again for the 14th time of the evening when Max Strus missed the final shot of the Eastern Conference finals. As Horford and the Celtics took a 100-96 wire-to-wire Game 7 victory on the road to finally make the NBA Finals, he tossed the ball in the air as high as he could, collapsing to the floor in exhausted jubilation.
“Just didn’t know how to act. Just caught up, excited. A lot of hard work,” Horford said. “I’ve been a part of a lot of great teams, a lot of great teammates, and I’m so proud of this group. These guys, I seen (Brown) come in the league, take steps, take levels. I seen (Jayson Tatum), the same thing. I seen Smart grow. For me, it’s just special to be with them and be able to help them and be a part of this. I’m really grateful to be in this position.”
It’s all love for OG 💚 pic.twitter.com/6PzAFTU3HS
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 30, 2022
Then those three players — who came into the season the presumptive triumvirate that would define this team — came out and immediately pointed to how honored they were to do this with Horford.
“He’s selfless. Al (couldn’t) care less about the numbers; he cares about the wins and this team,” Smart said. “When he came back, that gave us a sense of security. We got Al back there, he’s always going to make the right play on both ends. He’s going to calm us down. He’s going to show us what we missed, and he’s going to help us learn the game even more.”
Even after missing Game 1 because of the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols and losing his grandfather earlier this week, Horford was the defensive mastermind this team needed to survive Butler and the Heat’s resurgence. In those moments late in the game when Miami was getting stops and the lead was shrinking, it was Horford who halted the run and chased down every rebound.
“That’s what we do. We did all that on purpose to make it interesting,” Brown said jokingly. “But that’s us. We’ve been responding all year, all season to adversity. Today was the biggest test, not just of the year, but of our careers, to mentally come into a Game 7 away after losing on our home court, which was tough, and we got it done.”
As Horford held down the defense throughout the series, Tatum and Brown tried to figure out the Miami defense. They faced different types of double-teams, zones and gambles in the passing lanes.
The Celtics spent so much of this series trying to figure out their offensive tempo, alternating between pushing the pace to try to catch Miami off-balance and running down the clock to get the Heat to load up one side and hope a shooter would be just open enough at the last second to get off a shot. In these moments, when they overthought things, they often let the Heat back in. When the Celtics just played with flow and ran off defensive rebounds, they were in full control.
Then as they got to crunch time, Brown and Tatum took control to create the kind of late-game ball movement that had evaded them for so long. In the middle of the fourth quarter, Tatum started hitting brilliant late-clock shots to maintain the lead. Then, as the fourth quarter neared a close, he became the playmaker he had been building toward all season.
Wearing a purple Kobe Bryant No. 24 armband, Tatum displayed decision-making similar to his idol’s, drawing defenders where he wanted them and making cross-court passes to find good shots repeatedly.
“Today before I took my nap — I do it sometimes — I was watching some film and some moments from him and his career,” Tatum said. “This is the biggest game of my career thus far, and I wanted to wear that armband to honor him and kind of share that moment in a way.”
Just as Bryant would locate creases within the defense in the heat of the moment to find the best pass or shot, Tatum lured double-teams to one side of the floor to get Smart open and attacked gaps to pass the ball to Grant Williams. Though the Celtics failed to capitalize on almost all of the looks he created, he did what he had to do. He played the way he could be proud of, win or lose, and emulated the best virtues of his idol.
“I think in those moments, you don’t want to leave and feel like you could have done something more, so I think I came in with the mindset today that I was willing to do anything it took to win this game, however that looked,” Tatum said. “I came into the game, (and) the only thing that mattered was winning. Y’all weren’t going to talk about how many points or how many shots I missed if we lost. It was all about, did you get it done or not?”
That’s something the Celtics had to learn from experience, reaching the precipice of the finals year after year with nothing left to show but some growth. Horford left for what he thought would be greener pastures, then eventually found himself back on more fertile soil. He found a team ready to take all of the lessons that failure had doled out over the years and make change. It wasn’t pretty at first, but the Celtics faced the kind of adversity that buried them in the past and held strong.
Now, they enter the finals facing a team that has spent nearly a decade breaking through to this point. But after everything they’ve fought through these past few months, they are ready.
“We were tested. We’ve been through a lot,” Brown said. “We’ve learned a lot over the years, and now the stage is at its brightest. We’ve got to apply everything that we’ve learned into these moments.”
“To Jaylen’s point, winning is hard, and we’ve talked about this throughout the year,” Horford said. “But even though we’ve played many years in the league and things like that, this team, this is us going through this process, figuring it out, understanding how to win with this team, with this group, and it’s experience after experience. These are battle-tested teams that we’ve been playing, and we continue to grow.”
When it looked like Horford might have missed his chance a year ago, he never let go. When his teammates went down and it was on him to maintain this team’s identity, he never relented. Now, as the Celtics reach the toughest stage, the place this group has never been before against the team that’s grown accustomed to being there, Horford will be the one quietly leading the way.
(Photo: Issac Baldizon / NBAE via Getty Images)