Friday, May 17, 2024

Al Horford turns back clock in Celtics Game 5 series-clincher, calls TD Garden 'special'

The Celtics are back in the Eastern Conference for the third straight year and sixth over the past eight seasons, following their 113-98 Game 5 victory to eliminate the Cleveland Cavaliers 4-1.

While the Cavs were shorthanded -- playing without Donovan Mitchell, Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert, it took Al Horford turning back the clock to make sure the C's put away their feisty opponent at TD Garden to advance.

Whether it was one of the seven offensive rebounds grabbed, fighting for loose balls or simply making a steal, Horford's impact was felt on both ends of the floor -- as he finished with 22 points on 8-of-15 from the field to go along with 15 rebounds, five assists and three blocks.
"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," Jayson Tatum said in his postgame presser. "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."
It was a complete performance Horford knew that his teammates needed from him, with starting big man Kristaps Porzingis missing his sixth straight game. The home crowd appreciated the efforts of what many come to witness as "Playoff Al" as he hit a dagger 3-pointer in the final minute that was met with a standing ovation. Horford let out an emotional yell while gesturing to the home fans with both his arms raised before being subbed 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," Horford said in his postgame comments. "Bringing energy to our group. 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."
Horford, who went a combined 0-of-10 from behind the arc in Games 3 and 4, knocked down 6-of-13 from deep Wednesday night when it was needed most in a closeout situation, especially since the Cavs elected to leave him wide open for most of the five games played.
"They left him open all series, and he had a tough shooting a couple of games," C's coach Joe Mazzulla told reporters. "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."
This will be Horford's fifth appearance in the East Finals during his two stints as a Celtic and it's safe to say that he's been a leader and an integral part of all of them even though considered quiet and often not outspoken -- something Tatum has never taken for granted as a teammate of the 17-year veteran.
"I think just obviously his character, how he treats everybody, how everybody respects him because he always puts the team first, he's always been like that," said Tatum of Horford. "He truly does whatever it takes for the team to be better, and you see every day when he comes in, and he puts the work in in the weight room, on the court, on the bike, on the treatment table, whatever it is to make sure that he's available and ready for whatever we need him for. And it just kind of sets the tone.

"If somebody at this stage in his career and at his age is doing all those things, there's really no excuse for the rest of us."
With Horford's career winding down, the soon to be 38-year-old is honored to still be able to contribute at a high level on a championship roster. The Celtics not only seek to win a title when they've been favorites to do so all year, but also erase a disappointing 2022 NBA Finals berth and of course the loss in the conference finals a season ago after trailing three games to none. 
"It's special. It's something that -- it's hard to do. It's very difficult to do. And it means a lot to me," Horford said of making a third straight Eastern Conference Finals. "I'm very proud of just the work that our guys continue to put in."
Still, it also wouldn't hurt for Horford to win his first ring as a way to really thank him for being the ultimate teammate on and off the court. 
"It's nothing short of special," Tatum said of Horford. "Al is like a brother to me, somebody I love dearly and had the pleasure of being his teammate for six out of my seven years."
The Celtics await the winner of the other East bracket -- the New York Knicks, who lead their best-of-7 series 3-2 over the Indiana Pacers. In the meantime, while making it to the Eastern Conference Finals once again is needed in order to achieve the overall goal, Horford knows better than anyone that the job and the journey is far from being complete.
"Guys are trying to play the right way. They're sacrificing for the team. That's been a theme for us all year," Horford said. "I'm just very proud of where we're at right now at this point, understanding that there's a lot of work to do ahead for our group."

Joel Pavón

Photo used courtesy of Getty Images

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