Al Horford is a rock for the Boston Celtics


Al Horford

Al Horford
photo: Getty Images

If the Boston Celtics win an NBA championship, Al Horford’s Game 4 performance will live on in Boston sports histories until the East Coast crumbles into the Atlantic Ocean or whatever climate change truly sinks this planet with its teeth.

Without him, the Celtics go down 3-1 to defending champions Milwaukee Bucks on Monday night and instead return to Boston with an even series and have regained home field advantage. None of this is possible without Horford’s spectacular performance. Of the 30 points he scored — a playoff career high — 16 of them came in the fourth quarter, including two monster 3-point shots, the last of which would give the Celtics a lead late in the fourth quarter they don’t would have to resign for the rest of the game.

As much as the Celtics needed all those points last night, Horford was at their best for them but on the defensive side of the ball. Per Stat Muse, Horford, while guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, was able to keep him 30.6 percent off the field.

While Monday was a career night for Horford, it’s also a statistical outlier. Despite being a five-time NBA All-Star, nothing else stands out on his basketball reference page. He’s known as a reliable goalscorer, but he’s never managed even 19 points per game in a season. He has averaged double-digit rebounds only once in his career and has been named to an equal number of All-NBA and All-Defensive teams. Even while he was in Florida — the last major multi-year run in men’s college basketball — he averaged fewer points per game than Joakim Noah and was never a consensus All-American, but Horford would be ranked No. 3 overall in 2007 NBA draft and Noah would be selected ninth.

The scouts knew then what NBA players, media and fans would find out later. While Horford’s game is nothing spectacular, his constant presence and a basketball IQ that rivals Josh Smith’s vertical leap, he’s the type of player who will always make a difference to a team — unless of course he’s playing in the year 2020 alongside Joel Embiid COVID version of the NBA.

After back-to-back collegiate national championships in 2005 and 2006 — Florida is the only men’s program to have accomplished the feat since Duke won back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992 — he joined the Atlanta Hawks and made an immediate impression. Smith and Iso Joe were already there two seasons when Horford was drafted, but hadn’t done much to get the Hawks out of the hustle and bustle they’ve been in since the turn of the millennium — no playoff appearances. The Hawks not only made the playoffs in Horford’s rookie year, but carried eventual NBA champion Celtics to seven games as the eighth seed in the first round.

During Horford’s time with the Hawks, they never missed the playoffs. Sure, many of those series have aired on NBA television, but for the first time since Dikembe Mutombo, Mookie Blaylock and Steve Smith won 50 games at The Omni and Georgia Dome, the Hawks were a winner. Sure Josh Smith wasn’t the first player to usher in the 3-point era five years early was frustrating, as was Jeff Teague’s inconsistent game, but the person who held it together was Horford. At the high post, at the low post, both offensively and defensively, he was her rock. So what if he hadn’t released Iso Joe’s numbers? It was his offensive rebound and score That gave the Hawks a 3-2 lead over the Washington Wizards in a 2015 playoff series and would help lead the franchise to its first Conference Finals appearance since St. Louis. Until Trae Young’s performance in the playoffs last year, it was arguably the biggest game in Atlanta Hawks history.

That was Horford’s final season with the Hawks. He would sign a contract with the Celtics where he would completely change his game. It’s in Boston where his defense has received national recognition for punishing a young Embiid every time the Celtics played the Philadelphia 76ers and still being able to turn on the perimeter when needed. Then he could still do what he did with the Hawks on offense, but the Celtics needed more space in the paint for their offense to work.

After averaging more than half a 3-point attempt per game just once while with the Hawks, Horford would not only consistently attempt more than three per game with the Celtics, but in four seasons with them he shoots them to just under 37 Percent. Something he attempted for a season in Atlanta would be crucial in helping the Celtics to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals appearances against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

After two years in Philadelphia and Oklahoma City, the Celtics brought Horford back into their lineup with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, who were no longer college-age kids but young NBA All-Star men. As of January, the Celtics are arguably the best team in the league and are currently in a dogfight with the Bucks. As great as Tatum and Brown have been since the turn of the year, putting the Celtics through a road game they outperformed the most and desperately needed to win – Horford.

When his career ends, his memory depends on where a person lives and/or how big their basketball fan is. Those in Atlanta and Boston will remember him in their happy place for the rest of their lives. For basketball fans, he will be remembered as clearly the greatest player on one of the greatest college basketball teams of all time, and deserving of all the pre-draft hype. This top-three pick may not have made many viral games, nor was it a statistical monster in the NBA, but he played excellently and won basketball for 15 seasons, 18 if you count his time in Florida.

Because the Basketball Hall of Fame isn’t limited to professional careers, it deserves serious consideration. He’s one of the faces of men’s college basketball’s last reign of dominance, and whatever you think about it, it’s a historic achievement. Add to that five NBA All-Star appearances and the overwhelming majority of his career as a key contributor on competitive teams. That’s a resume worth showing in Springfield.

If he doesn’t get there, he will surely have the respect of those who have watched and worked with him for two decades. Horford might not have been 20 or 10 man or had stunning advanced analytics numbers but if you’ve seen him play since he was on standard def at Gainesville you know what you’ve seen – consistently great play.

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