Past Hardships Brought Out Best in Al Horford in Career Night: 'You Saw His Gift'

May 15, 2024; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) drives to the basket vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers.
May 15, 2024; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) drives to the basket vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers. / David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
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Al Horford brought TD Garden to life on Wednesday, then used the home crowd's energy as fuel for a career night.

The 16-year veteran joined LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players 37 or older to record a 20-point, 15-rebound, five-assist playoff game in NBA history.

"It feels great because we won," said the selfless Horford after the Celtics' 113-98 victory in Game 5. "So, that's the only satisfaction I get out of it. You can have a game like that, and if you don't get it done, you know, but I'm happy because I was able to help the team win this game." 

After an uninspiring start by the hosts, the former Florida Gator changed the complexion of Wednesday's matchup.

He fired up his teammates during huddles, and the crowd between whistles, and after scores and stops, like when he headed down court pumping both fists and letting out a battle cry in the direction of the TD Garden faithful after Boston forced a traveling violation by Dean Wade.

"Al's not as vocal as he is inspirational," stated Joe Mazzulla after Game 5. "And so when he plays the way he does, it's contagious. And everybody has different ways in which they lead, and you saw Al's gifts that God gave him and his ability to impact people around him. He did it at a high, high level today."

Horford's screaming in the direction of the home crowd, releasing a mixture of frustration and competitive fire, came during a 15-4 run to close the first half as the Celtics' momentum snowballed into an avalanche. 

At the heart of it wasn't just his energy and vocal leadership but the ability to make the Cavaliers pay for how they challenged him at both ends of the floor.

They left Horford open offensively, daring him to beat them. He obliged. It required him to shake off an 0/11 slump from beyond the arc that dates back to Game 4 and included missing four of his first five threes on Wednesday.

But in a testament to his character, he met the moment, proceeding to capitalize on five of his next eight attempts, ending the night 6/13 from three-point range. He made eight of the 15 field goals he hoisted, leaving the visitors with no choice but to tip their cap to an individual who has consistently risen to the occasion throughout his career.

"Once we got going and the game got going, and I just saw that we were just, we weren't where we needed to be as a group, it's like you have to do something, and I just wanted to bring that energy to our group and the group was able to feed off of it, and we all just continued to play," said Horford.

"The guys continued to trust me because the way that they were designing everything was for me to essentially shoot the ball or make plays through me. So, the guys just did a great job, JT, JB, Jrue, time after time, finding me and just having confidence in me."

At the other end of the floor, with Donovan Mitchell sidelined for the final two contests of this series because of a left calf strain, Boston switched more on defense. That created ample opportunities for Cleveland to see how he held up guarding Darius Garland one-on-one.

Horford responded by blocking three of his shots and playing the primary role in limiting the 24-year-old former All-Star to 11 points after he erupted for 30 in Game 4. 

And while Garland had nine assists on Wednesday, much of that can be attributed to the success he had running the pick-and-roll with Evan Mobley in the third frame with the soon-to-be 38-year-old off the floor.

Horford finished with 22 points, 15 rebounds -- the most in the matchup -- five assists, and three blocks, also the most in the matchup. It was only fitting that he provided the exclamation mark on the Celtics' victory.

When he subbed out for the final time, the home crowd serenaded him with "MVP" chants, and he hugged his Dad, Tito Horford, Joe Mazzulla, and each teammate he went by on his way out.

"Tonight was a special night for our group because we had this chance to close it out here at home, and for me, the biggest thing was just bringing energy; bringing energy to our group," said Horford after serving as the driving force that propelled the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals for the third straight season and the sixth time in eight years.

"I felt like we lacked it in the first quarter, and when I came back in the second, I felt like we needed to step it up. We were talking about it a lot in the huddle, but we weren't really getting it done. And we had a great opportunity here at home to handle this, and I knew it was gonna take a lot more than just playing a normal game."

What Horford's will to win pulled from him on Wednesday was an inspiring, energizing display of leading his team vocally and with his production. It's a performance from him that Celtics fans will always remember.

"Al leads instrumentally," voiced Mazzulla. "Not much of a talker. Tonight, you saw his gift. His gift is just passion, inspiration, toughness, competitive nature. And obviously, those games are tough, right? Where the other team is fighting for their lives, and you're trying to play as hard as you can. You don't want to make mistakes, whatever the case may be. But that's who Al is as a person. You saw his personality. 

"So, I thought he was tremendous. I thought that he started it for us, and all the guys responded well. So, grateful for Al. And really, just a credit, you know, they left him open all series, and he had a tough shooting (performance) a couple of games. And for a guy like him, he just needs to keep shooting. And just the way he affected the game in different ways was awesome. I'm honored to coach him."

As for Jayson Tatum, who's repeatedly referred to Horford as his favorite teammate, the five-time All-Star noted, "The one play in particular, when he saved the ball out of bounds, the last two minutes of the second quarter, it just gave us that extra possession, it pumped the crowd up, pumped our team up. Those plays – that was so meaningful. 

"Just how he played in the second half on the defensive end, he knocked down big shots time and time again. His performance, his energy, his leadership tonight was crucial."

For Horford, fueling his desire to avoid a return to Cleveland were the failures of playoffs past in these situations, including not closing out the Atlanta Hawks in Game 5 at TD Garden last year, having to go back to Milwaukee for a Game 6 with their season on the line in 2022, and not capitalizing on a chance on their home floor in Game 4 of the NBA Finals that year to take a 3-1 series lead.

On Wednesday, those hardships brought out the best in Horford.

"We all wanted this so bad," he expressed at the podium post-game. "I'm just happy that we were able to take advantage of this. In the past, we've been in this position and haven't been able to close things, and this is a sign of growth for our group. So I'm very proud of that."

Further Reading

Simple Changes Spark Stifling Second Half Defense in Celtics' Game 4 Win vs. Cavs

Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown Still Shaking Off Criticism While Growing as Leaders

Jrue Holiday Delivers 'Masterclass' in Game 3 Win vs. Cavs

Jayson Tatum Breaks Out of Scoring Slump That Never Defined Him: 'Underappreciated'

Celtics Discuss 'Unacceptable Performance' in Game 2 Loss to Cavs

Derrick White Discusses Joining Elite Company in Game 1 Win vs. Cavaliers

Jaylen Brown Leads Celtics to Tone-Setting Win in Game 1 vs. Cavaliers

Kristaps Porzingis Discusses Target Date to Rejoin Celtics' Playoff Run: 'Doing Everything I Can'


Published
Bobby Krivitsky

BOBBY KRIVITSKY

Bobby Krivitsky's experiences include covering the NBA as a credentialed reporter for Basketball Insiders. He's also a national sports talk host for SportsMap Radio, a network airing on 96 radio stations throughout the country. Additionally, he was a major-market host, update anchor, and producer for IMG Audio, and he worked for Bleacher Report as an NFL and NBA columnist.