Basketball

‘I can still play’: Al Horford ignites Celtics to Game 4 win over Bucks


MILWAUKEE — Al Horford heard it all two seasons ago in Philadelphia.

He’s too old. He can’t move like he once did. He’s too limited now.

Horford itched to prove the doubters wrong. He knew they couldn’t see the truth. They couldn’t recognize that the 76ers effectively caged him in. They didn’t realize he could still flourish in the right role, more similar to the one he had always filled. Horford vowed to take advantage of his next opportunity, whatever it might be.

“I’ll make sure that I show people,” he thought to himself.

If he were any less humble, Horford could snap back at the critics. He could raise his middle finger to much of the basketball world. Throughout his first season back with the Celtics, he has proved he can still lift a team at both ends of the court. He has demonstrated he’s not too creaky or washed up. And with the Celtics on the brink of a two-game series deficit Monday night, he showed he can still take over a game with the highest stakes.

Horford carried the Celtics out of a double-digit deficit. He dragged them to a 116-108 Game 4 win. With Jaylen Brown in foul trouble, Robert Williams injured and Jayson Tatum needing time to find his shot, Horford saved his team with a mighty wave of clutch plays. The Celtics will return to Boston with the best-of-seven series at 2-2 and home-court advantage on their side because their old man doesn’t play like one. When the Celtics needed stability most, Horford stepped in, leaned over and yanked his team out of a dire situation.

“Obviously, Al carried us for a great part of that second half,” Tatum said. “And he just kind of ignited everybody else to get it going.”

These are the chances Horford craved during his one-year stay in Philadelphia. During a January chat at the Celtics’ team hotel in Los Angeles, he said he had heard criticism from certain people who “would only see the box scores.” He acknowledged going through some knee issues at the time, which limited him some. Still, he believed he could have given the 76ers a lot more under different circumstances. Privately, he steeled himself to demonstrate he could still do everything he used to do.

“Because I know what I can do,” Horford said. “I know what I am and what I can bring to a team. I was just thinking to myself: ‘When I get an opportunity, I’ll show that I can still play. That I’m fine. That I’ll be good.’”

Horford hurtled past good Monday night and built a home on great. He said a switch flipped inside him after Giannis Antetokounmpo punctuated one dunk with a glare in Horford’s direction. The act resulted in a technical foul for Antetokounmpo. More than the single free throw the snarl gave Boston, the bigger impact came from the motivation it lit inside Horford.

“I don’t really know what he said to me,” Horford said. “But the way that he was looking at me and the way he was going about it really didn’t sit well with me.”

Horford almost never calls out another player. He normally stays away from trash talk. After too much time away from such pressure-filled moments, maybe he just couldn’t wait to dive into every aspect of the playoff experience — even the animosity of it. On the court, Horford nodded repeatedly, stared back at Antetokounmpo and snapped back, “OK.” Though he spoke but one word, the message behind it was clear: Game on. Strap up. The rest of this game should be fun.

The Celtics still needed time to gather themselves. As they fell behind by 11 points during the third quarter, Horford missed three of his four shots in the period, including a wide-open 3-point attempt at the end of the frame. After that brick, the Celtics trailed by seven points entering the fourth quarter. Based on the way they had played, they considered themselves fortunate to be that close. They were luckier to have Horford.

“He’s been doing this for a very long time,” Marcus Smart said. “And he understands what he brings to the game and to this team, and we need every last bit of it on every night we can. So it’s a big, big, big, big, big — and I mean this — big key, Al being with us, and he makes it that much better.”

The Celtics needed it all from Horford: His first 30-point outing since 2019 — the first of his postseason life and the ninth of his career. Nineteen points, four rebounds and three made 3-pointers after halftime. Six made field goals in a row to start the fourth quarter. Another night of admirable defense against Antetokounmpo, who collected 34 points, 18 rebounds and five assists but missed 18 of 32 field goal attempts. Given the way the Bucks defend ball screens, the Celtics believe they can get Horford open pick-and-pop shots almost at will. He knocked down all of the most important ones. Over 42 minutes, the most playing time he had racked up since Game 4 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals, Horford kept the Celtics afloat until everyone around him remembered how to swim.

And, yes, Horford returned the favor to Antetokounmpo. About two minutes into the fourth quarter, Horford drove past the two-time MVP, slammed home a dunk and celebrated with a fury he hardly ever unleashes. Because Horford was called for a technical foul on the play (his elbow struck Antetokounmpo’s face after the whistle), he was able to tie the score twice on the same possession.

“I wasn’t surprised at all, man,” Smart said. “It was a big-time play, a big-time moment and a physical game. We’ve been on the other end of those a couple of times, so it felt good to have that one. And, you know, Al still has it. At this age, he’s still able to get up like he does. So we weren’t surprised, but we were ecstatic for him, and we needed it. We felt it. Everybody did. The energy changed once that happened from Al. It got him going, and it got everybody else going.”

Horford yearned for these moments during his two seasons away from Boston. As recently as this past summer, he didn’t know what the rest of his career would hold. Before that, he just wanted to move on from the 76ers. After Philadelphia traded him to Oklahoma City, he said in January, he initially considered the move a positive one because he wanted something — anything — different. Once the news settled 24 hours later, he realized he would be stuck in a rebuilding process with three years left on his contract. He said he “prayed a lot” over the predicament.

“The next day was like, ‘Whoa, this is my reality; this is what it’s looking like.’ It was hard to come to terms with at that time,” Horford said. “But I just remember one of my really good friends, talking to him and talking to my wife. And they said, ‘Hey, this is an opportunity to make the best out of your situation. And this could be a blessing that the Lord has given you.’”

Horford went on to enjoy his time in Oklahoma City. He appreciated the organizational approach from general manager Sam Presti and head coach Mark Daigneault. Though he understood nobody paid attention because the Thunder played their games far from the national television cameras, Horford felt like himself again. Still, even before Oklahoma City decided to shut him down at the All-Star break, nothing there could replace the feel of playoff basketball. He watched the postseason last year from home and hoped to have another chance to dance under the bright lights. Once the Celtics reacquired Horford in June, he set out to prepare his body for the challenges ahead. At 35, he knew he needed to take his workouts to another level. With a roster he believed could contend, he wanted to seize the golden opportunity.

It almost slipped away Monday night, but Horford refused to lose his grip on the season. He knew the importance of Game 4. He knew what a 3-1 series deficit would have meant.

“These are the moments that I want to be a part of,” Horford said.

And the moments he can still own.

(Photo: Morry Gash / Associated Press)





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