Tuesday April 22nd, 2008

BOSTON -- The Garden fans were so loud that the Celtics could hear them from their locker room. As he warmed up on the court with his young teammates, Hawks rookie center Al Horford sought perspective as if it were shelter against the noise and hostility.

"You could feel everybody was on edge, everybody knew it was a big game,'' Horford said. "I have to say that we went into it like it was any other game. But when we were out there, we could definitely see the difference in intensity.''

The lone rookie in the Hawks' opening lineup became their only starter to elevate his game to the moment. How did Horford respond to his postseason debut with 20 points and 10 rebounds against the league's top defense?

"I was listening to the screen,'' Horford said of the pregame video featuring highlights and interviews of current and former Celtics. "It was somebody from the Celtics and he said, You have to not be caught up in the emotions. You have to be able to just focus on what you've got to do and play. And I heard that before the game, and I was like, He's right. Because I was so hyped for the game, I'm ready to go, and you get out there sometimes and you make some dumb mistakes because you're not ready. You get too antsy. So I held it in and rode it out through the game.''

Those videos aren't meant to inspire the visiting team, Horford was told.

"I guess not,'' he said. "But I try to take something good from everything.''

Horford's efficient 7-of-10 performance in 40 minutes is one of the few positives Atlanta will carry into Game 2 of its first-round series against the top-seeded Celtics on Wednesday. The failures of Atlanta's experienced backcourt -- Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby were a combined 9-of-32 from the field -- resulted in a 104-81 loss Sunday.

A rookie should not be setting the playoff example for elder teammates, but Horford is not the typical 21-year-old. Two successive NCAA titles at Florida taught more than he learned from the Celtics' pregame video.

"Everybody talked about the big stage, the playoffs and everything,'' Horford said. "I was so excited when I was out there with all the Celtics' fans, and it was a big rush for me. It just reminded me of the NCAA tournament, it was pretty intense like that. As far as the crowd, it didn't really bother me. It just got me excited.''

Horford has spent this season learning a new position as an undersized center, averaging 10.1 points and 9.7 rebounds in 81 games. He should finish second in Rookie of the Year voting to Kevin Durant, who was chosen by Seattle one spot ahead of Horford, the No. 3 pick.

"You know who he reminds me of is Otis Thorpe,'' P.J. Brown, the Celtics' 38-year-old big man, said, referring to a former 6-foot-9 power forward who made the 1992 All-Star team with Houston and had six seasons in which he averaged at least 16 points and nine rebounds. "I see him in the Otis Thorpe mold, a strong offensive-defensive rebounder, the post game; he's got that running hook, the turnaround jumper. It's simple but effective. He runs the floor hard and plays extra hard every possession.

"He looks calm and under control, like he's been here before. He's a mature kid. You can tell he's probably a student of the game, a guy that mentally prepares, and he's ready to come out there and play.''

Regardless of the series outcome, Horford can take something good from this matchup by looking up to Kevin Garnett in all kinds of ways. At 6-11, Garnett is listed as an inch taller than Horford, but the height difference looks greater, and there were times when Garnett was able to simply pass over the top or grab rebounds above Horford despite the rookie's superior positioning.

More impressive was Garnett's energy, which overtook him when Celtics forward Leon Powe landed hard on his back after an aggressive breakaway dunk in the fourth quarter. Sam Cassell was trying to give Powe a hand up when Garnett shoved Cassell out of the way in order to congratulate Powe rather violently with a series of punches to the upper body.

"I was overanxious, and [in] the second half I had to tell myself to calm down,'' said Powe, himself a playoff rookie.

Whereupon he looked up to see Garnett attacking him. "Then I got excited again,'' Powe said.

"It reminded me of one of my old [Florida] teammates, Joakim Noah,'' Horford said of the Bulls' excitable big man. "That's something he would have done with one of the guys.''

The secret for Horford going forward will be to apply the childish energy of Garnett with the mature understanding of how to play the angles and create holes in the defense.

"He was unbelievable,'' Hawks coach Mike Woodson of Horford. "He played like he has been playing playoffs all season. We have got to get all the guys playing a higher level for the upcoming games.''

Brown promised that the Celtics would focus on shutting down Horford as "their No. 1 front-line guy.'' Though Horford expects an even harder test Wednesday as Boston seeks to move closer to a sweep of the No. 8 seed, he remains optimistic. That appreciation for second chances comes with not being in college anymore.

"We get to come back and play, it's best of seven,'' Horford said. "In school our mentality was win or go home. Here we have a chance to redeem ourselves and play another game.''

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