No one in NBA history waited longer and waded through more playoff contests than Al Horford to play in the NBA Finals. It took him 141 playoff games to reach the Finals. It took Horford just one to leave his mark by doing something else he had never done before.
Horford celebrated his 36th birthday a day early by generating his own fireworks from the 3-point arc in Game 1 of the Finals. Big Al came up huge, as the Celtics beat the Golden State Warriors, the standard-bearers of 3-point bombardment, at their own game and in their building. Boston rallied from a dozen-point deficit in the fourth quarter for a 120-108 win.
Horford drilled a career-high six threes (in eight attempts) on his way to delivering a team-high 26 points. He was the Man of the Match as the Celtics overmatched the Warriors from distance.
Average Al? Nah, Playoff Al riding to the rescue again, just as he did in the Milwaukee series. The Celtics aren’t in the Finals without Horford, and they’re definitely not three wins away from Banner No. 18 without his Game 1 heroics, which included scoring 11 fourth-quarter points without a miss to help propel a 40-16 fourth-quarter barrage that flipped the outcome and the script. The Splash Brothers outdone by the Green’s Godfather.
Horford’s first NBA Finals action is now minted in Celtics history as they hopped on his back Cedric Maxwell-style.
“We were ecstatic for him. Al is the OG, man,” said Marcus Smart. “He puts in the work. Don’t nobody deserve to be here more than him.
“The way that he carries himself, the professionalism he comes to this game with every day, we knew it was only a matter of time for him to have a big game.”
The Celtics will tell you it was their defense that won this frazzling contest and the fourth quarter, which began with them facing a dozen-point deficit. It wasn’t.
The Celtics transformed the 3-point arc into their arc of triumph, draining their first seven threes in the final frame and shooting a sizzling 75 percent (9-12) from the modern basketball Mount Olympus. They hit the Dubs with lightning bolt after lightning bolt during a 20-2 run.
The pressure the Warriors melted under wasn’t from the league’s best defense, which tightened its bolts. It was Boston’s audacious offensive output that bought breathing room and eventually cooked Golden State.
The Celtics, raining threes, zoomed right past Golden State like a Tesla blowing past a plodding minivan. Nobody does that to the three-time champion Warriors and Stephen Curry, who have defined a generation of basketball with their balletic ball movement and limitless 3-point shooting.
The Celtics turned the tables on them with a 40-point fourth that turned a classic Golden State performance into a Boston statement win.
“Well, give them credit. I mean, they made 21 threes,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr.
“They were moving the ball really well, and they had us on our heels. They made a good push to start the fourth, and they kept that momentum going. It’s going to be tough to beat Boston if they are making 21 threes and they are getting a combined 11 from Horford and [Derrick] White.
“Those guys, give them credit. They knocked down every big shot in the fourth quarter. Boston just played a brilliant quarter. They came in and earned the win.”
A night that looked like it belonged to Curry, who had 21 of his 34 and a Finals-record six threes in a virtuoso first-quarter, instead belonged to a Hemingway-esque protagonist trying to reel in the championship that has eluded him. Horford’s tale was the Old Man and the Three.
Led by Horford’s hot shooting — he hit 75 percent from three and 75 percent from the field — and five threes from the gutsy White, the Celtics stole a page from Golden State’s book and blitzed their opponent into oblivion from beyond the arc.
After White (21 points) tied the game at 103 on — what else? — a trey, Horford knocked down back-to-back threes to give the Celtics a lead they would never relinquish.
“I felt like the guys kept finding me time after time,” said Horford. “It was just get the looks, knock them down. That’s that.”
If you knew beforehand that the teams would rewrite the record books for most combined threes in a Finals game, the presumption would’ve been that Curry, Klay Thompson, and Jordan Poole owned the evening. Golden State made 19 of 45 threes, led by 7 of 14 from Curry.
But with Horford catching fire, the Celtics canned 21 of 41. Checkmate.
This wasn’t a fluke for Horford. He came into the Finals leading the Celtics in 3-point shooting this postseason at 43.2 percent, a significant jump from his 33.6 percent success rate in the regular season.
“Al had a bunch of great looks. We encouraged him to keep taking them. He came out his first Finals game and played amazing. He carried us and led us to a victory,” said Jaylen Brown, who jumpstarted the Celtics in the fourth with 10 of his 24 points.
It’s easy to say this isn’t a sustainable formula for the Celtics. The odds of them outshooting Golden State to the Larry O’Brien Trophy would seem long. You know, kind of like the odds of Horford regaining his form after two trying seasons away from Boston in Philadelphia and Oklahoma City.
But entering the Finals, the Celtics were third in the NBA this postseason in percentage of points via 3-pointers at 37.7 percent. Golden State ranked fifth (35.4).
Horford put the finishing touches on Game 1, following an and-1 hoop with a flex for the stunned Chase Center crowd with 48.3 seconds left. The shot came from 5 feet, his closest attempt all night, ironically.
Horford flexed his might in his first Finals foray with a long-distance performance a long time in the making that will be remembered in Celtics lore for a long time.
Read the Globe’s stories from Game 1