ATLANTA - Al Horford felt sluggish at first, the soreness of his first game in more than three months catching up to him in his second. He had returned, against expectations, two nights earlier, getting stronger as Game 4 wore on, getting used to being back on the court. There had been a lot of uncertainty at how he might feel and play, after being sidelined since January. It was better than he had hoped.
But, starting Tuesday night in Game 5, Horford didn’t feel quite right. And, as the Hawks went down early to the Celtics, he was struggling to find a rhythm. He finished the first quarter with 2 points and three rebounds, having taken just one shot. The Hawks were down by 6.
“I was mad at myself because I wasn’t having the impact that I wanted in the game,’’ Horford said. “As the game wore on, for some reason, I stepped it up, and the guys started to find me on the pick-and-rolls, and it just kind of took off from there.’’
That it did, Horford getting stronger, his impact increasing, as the center led the Hawks to a season-extending 87-86 win over the Celtics at Philips Arena.
This was the team the Hawks were supposed to have. Horford, who had been out since Jan. 11 with a torn pectoral muscle, came back in Game 4. But it was Game 5 that was his.
“He was absolutely huge,’’ coach Larry Drew said. “One of the things that we’d really been missing about him was, No. 1, his presence, his leadership on the floor. And then what he brings athletically to the table.
“A lot of our pick-and-roll schemes, his ability to move around in times where we’re forced to make switches, he’s the guy that can switch onto the ball. He has the speed and the quickness to stay with the ball to challenge a shot.’’
Horford’s shot started to get better as the game wore on, the jumper started to fall, the dunks were there. And he transformed the Hawks from the team that looked dispirited in Boston on Sunday to the team that was able to extend the series to Game 6.
“We told him just keep shooting,’’ guard Jeff Teague said. “He did that.’’
Despite claims that Horford’s minutes would be limited in Game 5, the center played 41 minutes. He was needed, every one of those minutes, and he managed to perform, too.
“I was tired a little bit, but right now I feel fine,’’ Horford said. “Maybe it’s the adrenaline from the game and tomorrow will be a different story, but right now I’m fine.
“I was picking my spots on when to be aggressive out there. I didn’t want to lose the series that way, so I didn’t want to let [Rajon] Rondo shoot a jumper over me. You’re fighting for your life out there. I wanted to bring energy to the team tonight. We needed to win this game.’’
A big part of the win was the improved pick-and-roll for the Hawks, something that was made far easier with the presence of Horford.
“He’s a real athletic guy, athletic roller,’’ Teague said. “His presence to be able to pick-and-pop and when he can switch it up and roll, it’s big.’’
And it came just at the right time for the Hawks, when they needed a boost from somewhere.
As Celtics coach Doc Rivers said simply, “Al Horford was terrific tonight.’’
“Al makes a big difference,’’ Rondo said. “He can guard anybody on the court.’’
And score, too, finishing with 19 points on 8-of-15 shooting. He added 11 rebounds, four of them on the offensive glass, and three steals. It was enough to get the Hawks where they wanted to go - back to Boston. They were given an opening, and Atlanta will try to ride Horford again Thursday in an effort to force yet another game.
“We can’t be nothing but confident,’’ Horford said. “We know it’s going to be a big challenge, going up there. We got embarrassed last time we were up there. We’re aware of that. This is a different situation for us, and we’re giving it all that we have.’’