After a dysfunctional 2018-19 season that ended with Kyrie Irving sabotaging the Boston Celtics in a second-round playoff exit and reneging on his commitment to re-sign with the famed franchise, Al Horford chose safety of a more lucrative $109 million offer from the Philadelphia 76ers to leave in free agency.
Two seasons later, the prodigal veteran found his way back to Boston, where the fledgling Celtics he left were preparing to roll out their own All-Star wings, and together they delivered what had eluded Horford for so long. 14 seasons and 141 playoff games, more than anything. other active player: his first NBA Finals appearance.
Horford anchored a dominating defensive effort against the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday night, and the three players whose careers he led in Boston — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart — provided enough offense to survive a 100 -96 series clincher.
“Nobody deserves it more than this guy to my right here, man,” said Brown, who spent the first three seasons of his career playing alongside Horford and sat next to him on the podium at post game. “His energy, his attitude, coming in every day, being a professional, taking care of his body, being a leader, I’m proud to be able to share this moment with a veteran, a mentor, a brother, a guy like Al Horford. He’s been great all season, really my whole career. I’m happy 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 hit in his first Conference Finals victory in four tries. He leaned over and shouted a single word into the hardwood of FTX Arena. “Yes,” he repeated several times, before his teammates helped him up.
“My grandfather was someone I was extremely close to, someone I really care about,” Horford said, “and all week my mom, my family told me to go play . It’s something he would have wanted me to do, to keep going 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 were swept away by LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers James in the conference semifinals, and he saw what the Celtics were building. Boston had Isaiah Thomas, Smart, a hodgepodge of hard workers and the Celtics’ last remnant of the 2008 championship — two high lottery picks obtained from the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
Horford led the Celtics to the Eastern Finals in 2017 and 2018, the rookie years for No. 3 overall picks Brown and Tatum, respectively. Boston had traded Thomas for Irving and added Gordon Hayward between those two years, but both All-Stars’ season-ending injuries left the Celtics with Brown and Tatum as their top scorers in a seven-game loss to Who Else. than LeBron’s Cavs in the 2018 Conference Finals.
“When you lose those streaks, it obviously hurts and it’s tough,” Tatum said. “But you never forget that. That’s what we all have in common. We’ve all been through those tough times and we remember how we felt.”
All the while, Horford was a consummate professional. He was derided nationally for losing to LeBron in four straight playoffs and locally, where a Boston Sports Talk radio host dubbed him “Average Al”, ignoring Horford’s contributions as a center who allows the Celtics to defend and space the ground offensively from all five positions. . They just didn’t have the firepower around him to match LeBron’s greatness, at least not yet.
So when James left the East and Irving undermined the Celtics, Horford faced another tough career decision between a starting team with a sub-league cap and the next rising young roster. He picked Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the Sixers, only to watch the evolving trio of Tatum, Brown and Smart lead Boston to the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals, where they lost to Miami in six games.
When Horford’s frontline partnership with Embiid fell apart 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 wage dump. The Thunder put Horford on ice in their quest for a high lottery pick, and his career was heading to an unceremonious end, short of championship aspirations.
Only the Celtics called again, once again needing him to lead a young crew that had veered off course during a .500 season. Horford was available to anyone who could match his $27 million salary last summer, and no one rang until Boston offered Kemba Walker and a first-round pick in a deal that was rejected by critics. analysis-oriented basketball players. Horford was the same as ever, undervalued.
The Celtics started this season on shaky ground and first-year coach Ime Udoka reminded them of their instability with each downturn. Horford laid the groundwork for their defensive identity and he trusted the offensive development of Tatum, Brown and Smart. As necessary as Udoka’s brutally honest reviews were, Boston needed Horford’s steady hand to balance out the emotions of a young team still finding its way.
“When he came back, it gave us a sense of security,” Smart said of Horford. “We’ve got Al there. He’s always going to play the right game on both sides, he’s going to calm us down, he’s going to show us what we’ve been missing and he’s going to help us learn the game even more. “he brings to this game – his mentality, his professionalism, and that’s the big part for us, the way he comes to work every day. We admire that, and we try to involve that in our lives and in our Game.”
Their mutual trust fueled a remarkable turnaround. Horford was the eldest of a fraternity that made basketball’s top team for the last four months of the regular season. Their bond with defense was as unbreakable as anything the league has seen since the Celtics last reached the Finals in 2010, and the rising stars were realizing their potential. Tatum made the All-NBA First Team, Smart was Defensive Player of the Year, and Brown received All-NBA and All-Defensive Team votes.
Equally important to Boston’s success, Horford was Horford again. Given the chance to resurrect his career with a roster he helped elevate, they have soared to heights no one would have imagined a year ago. They outlasted Kevin Durant’s Nets, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks and, yes, outlasted Jimmy Butler’s Heat.
“I’ve been on a lot of great teams and I’m so proud of this group,” Horford said. “I saw [Brown] enter the league, take steps, take levels. I saw [Tatum], the same thing. I saw Smart grow up. It’s just special to be with them and to be able to help them and be part of them. I’m grateful to be in this position.”
All that remains is to raise the franchise’s 18th banner. Only the three-time Golden State Warriors stand in the way of Horford’s Hall of Fame legacy and fully realized the potential of the roster he mentored.
“Every athlete’s dream is to reach that final stage and have an opportunity,” Smart said. “I’ve been here four years in the Eastern Conference Finals, and I’ve been sent home every year. It’s really good, and it’s really good for Jayson and Jaylen. We’ve been together for a very long time. long – even Al, man. Al, just happy for him. He’s played all these games, and he’s been working his cock. He deserves it more than any of us.
We so rarely see a second chance in sport, or ever in life, but these Celtics are making the most of it.
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Ben Rohrbach is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Do you have any advice? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach