Celtics forward Al Horford took 265 3-pointers during the regular season and dribbled the ball prior to launching fewer than 10 of them, never more than twice. But these are the playoffs, a time to get creative and keep opponents off-balance with the unexpected.
Horford took five dribbles along the right arc near the start of Game 1 against the Nets Sunday, and when Marcus Smart set a screen on Andre Drummond, the Nets center calmly went under it, surely aware of Horford’s shot profile. Then the man who almost exclusively catches and shoots drained this attempt after those five dribbles.
Moments later, Horford helped trap Nets star Kevin Durant near the right sideline and knocked the ball away. He scooped it up and started the fast break by lumbering upcourt like a freight train until Brooklyn guard Seth Curry reached out to wrap him up and stop a layup.
It did not take long for the TD Garden crowd to realize that Horford was locked in for this big day, and after the initial cheer that followed the foul, the roar grew louder as Horford tucked the ball under his arm and walked toward the fans along the baseline, subtly flexing his biceps.
“It’s the playoffs,” Horford said. “We’re playing at TD Garden. It doesn’t get any better than being in this position. Our crowd was great tonight. They were unbelievable. I’m just enjoying the moment.”
With Celtics stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown scuffling a bit at the start, Horford provided the steady, veteran leadership this team was seeking when it acquired him from the Thunder in June 2021. His powerful first quarter set the tone during the Celtics’ gripping 115-114 Game 1 win, and he did not let up after that.
The 35-year-old Horford made 8 of 13 shots and finished with 20 points and 15 rebounds. And with Robert Williams out with a knee injury and Daniel Theis spending much of the first half in foul trouble, the Celtics relied on Horford more than they have in years. He logged 41 minutes, 29 seconds, the most he has played since the 2018 Eastern Conference finals against the Cavaliers.
“Al was Al,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “He does it all the time.
“Some of the things don’t always show up on the stat sheet, but playing 41½ minutes, I know we have a three-day break coming up so we can catch up on the rest and get the legs fresh again. But he does everything we’re asking for — guarding the bigs, playing in touch coverage, switching.”
This is everything Horford was asking for, too. He opted out of the final year of his deal with the Celtics two years ago to sign a four-year contract with the 76ers, but that was a clunky fit alongside All-Star center Joel Embiid, and his role was reduced considerably by season’s end.
Then he was traded to the Thunder in a salary-clearing move, and just two months into the season, Oklahoma City decided to shut down Horford to focus on the development of its younger players.
But Horford has said that experience allowed him to focus on his health, conditioning, and skill work after years of simply focusing on the next game, and it rejuvenated him and allowed him to have a bounce-back year such as this one. Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens reacquired Horford last summer when he sent Kemba Walker and a first-round pick to Oklahoma City, and the reunion has been rewarding.
On Sunday, Horford ignited the Celtics at the start and helped steady them at the end, when it looked as if Kyrie Irving would complete the Nets’ ferocious fourth-quarter comeback.
When Brooklyn went to a smaller lineup featuring the wire-thin Nic Claxton at center, Udoka urged Horford and Theis to intensify their pursuit of offensive rebounds. Horford grabbed six of them, none bigger than his putback on a Smart miss, tying the score at 111 with a minute left.
After Irving pushed Brooklyn back in front with a 3-pointer, Horford was a calming influence in the huddle, urging his younger teammates to stay poised and move on.
“At that point, a team can go one of two ways, and we got a pretty good handle of the game in the third and it kind of just got away from us,” Horford said. “Just give our group a lot of credit, because we all understood that we needed to stay with it.”
Brown sliced into the lane and converted a layup that pulled the Celtics within 1 before Horford helped smother Irving with a double-team on the right wing, forcing him to kick the ball out to Durant. The sharpshooter’s contested 3-pointer caromed off the side of the rim and Horford gobbled up the rebound.
Instead of calling a timeout, Horford got the ball to Derrick White, who started the most important fast break of the Celtics season. Tatum eventually ended it with his buzzer-beating layup.
As Horford walked through a hallway toward his team’s locker room afterward, his excitement and intensity level were obvious.
“Yes!” he screamed to no in particular, before repeating it twice more for emphasis. “Yes! Yes! Team! Team!”