MILWAUKEE — The educated guess is the Celtics will fully guarantee Al Horford’s contract for next season. That’s because in these playoffs, and especially in this grueling series, the 35-year-old, considered on the downside of a sparkling career, has been Boston’s best player.
The Celtics essentially had to win Monday at Fiserv Forum, trailing the defending champion Bucks two games to one with Milwaukee trying to knock out its game opponent behind the dominance of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
And the Bucks got close, extending their lead to 11 late in the third quarter as Antetokounmpo, consistently gashed the Celtics defense with his power and length for easy layups.
Horford had been the victim of some of those drives, and he was angered when Antetokounmpo nearly dunked him through the hoop and followed with a stare and a few words in his Greek accent. He received a tech, and that appeared to spark the usually mild-mannered Horford.
Horford walked down the floor, nodding his head to Antetokounmpo, repeatedly saying “OK, OK, OK,” as if he had been pushed to his limit.
“I don’t really know what he said to me but the way he was looking at me and the way he was going about it really didn’t sit well with me,” Horford said. “And at that point something switched with me in the game.”
He responded with some of the best basketball of his career, splashing threes, hitting short jumpers and then finally exact revenge with a dunk on Antetokounmpo early in the fourth.
Following that dunk, and an inadvertent hand to Antetokounmpo’s face, Horford nearly walked through the tunnel to the locker room flexing to the fans, screaming in delight. The Celtics would then dominate the final nine minutes from a 116-108 comeback win, with Horford being the catalyst.
Horford scored 16 of his 30 points in that pivotal fourth quarter, completing a brilliant night with 11-of-14 shooting, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, a plus-20 and a thunderous dunk on the two-time MVP.
“Big play obviously,” he said. “Very emotional and I think for our group, got us going even more at that point. Tonight things weren’t going our way. They were hard there in the third [quarter] for a while.”
The Celtics wouldn’t be here without Horford, who was reacquired last summer as a concession for unloading Kemba Walker’s weighty contract. The organization expected he would be a professional, a veteran leader on the decline who would have his moments during his 15th season, mostly a mentor for Robert Williams.
Horford quickly, however, showed in training camp he had enough athleticism and game left to make a major contribution. He claimed the starting power forward role and has been a steady presence ever since, exceeding all expectations from the trade and erasing any questions whether the Celtics would guarantee his $26 million contract for next season. Horford has proved to be an essential part of this Celtics’ playoff run and the organization’s resurgence under first-year coach Ime Udoka.
“Al is . . . man, we love Al,” guard Marcus Smart said. “He’s the best vet we’ve ever had. He’s the best vet I’ve ever had. He comes in and never changes. Things are going bad or good, he’s going to be him. I’m more energized, more sporadic than he is and he’s always calm and cool every time. It’s a big key to have him there to help us.”
Horford turned back into Clark Kent after the game, responding to media questions in a whisper-quiet voice, leaving the passion and the vigor from an emotional game on the floor.
“Playoffs are emotional, they are intense,” he said. “We all understood the importance of this game. We felt that at the end of Game 3, we were in the position to win and we didn’t. I was just really locked in. I understood the moment and what we needed to do as a group and just come out and really did whatever it took. It was one of those types of nights.”
When asked the last time he had been so emotional during a game, Horford struggled to recall any previous game. It was as if he stunned himself with his reaction.
“I don’t even know,” he said. “I’m really not sure. I usually just kind of go about my business. I do get excited but I guess you kind of pick your spots and this was an emotional game.”
What can’t be questioned is Horford’s value to the Celtics franchise from the moment president of basketball operations Danny Ainge signed him to that maximum contract in 2016. His abrupt departure to Philadelphia was regrettable while his stint in Oklahoma City last season where he stayed home for months waiting for a trade reinvigorated his body and prepared him for a career renaissance.
“I just know I’m grateful for the opportunity that I have,” he said. “All of this past summer preparing for the season to be in these types of moments and throughout the season making sure that I consistently did everything I had to do physically feeling well. This summer I understood I needed to take it to even another level. Now these are the moments I want to be part of, that I want to play.”
This time last year, Horford was just an aging veteran on an unwanted contract, waiting for a contending team to take a chance. And the Celtics summoned him again, expecting more leadership and guidance than 30-point playoff games. He has now delivered both.
“That’s from sitting at home, that’s from watching the playoffs, not knowing what my future was holding,” he said. “Just hoping to be in this kind of environment. Playoffs are hard, they’re tough and I’m just trying to find a way.”