For those who question Al Horford’s value to the Celtics or why teams chased him with a maximum contract offer two years or ago or why he has been to five All-Star Games, Exhibit A was Saturday night at TD Garden.
With Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward sitting in street clothes on the bench, long ruled out of any Celtics playoff run, the remaining player from the team’s new Big Three snatched Game 7 from the Milwaukee Bucks with a masterful performance.
When it appeared the Bucks would enter Game 7 with the best two players in the series — Giannis Antetokoumpo and Khris Middleton — Horford outshined both in the Celtics’ 112-96 win.
He helped stave off every Bucks run with key baskets, turning himself into an unstoppable force in the paint even against Milwaukee 7-footer Thon Maker, who had changed the series with his rim protection. Horford simply wore Maker out in the post with his variety of moves that created short jumpers or easy layups.
Horford finished with 26 points on 13-for-17 shooting and he stayed away from launching 3-pointers and stuck to what made him one of the league’s more valued big man, an interior game that creates matchup nightmares. Horford used his athleticism to get to the rim and finished at will.
The Bucks, who blocked 41 shots through the first five games, blocked six in the final two games and the Celtics scored 60 points in the paint in Game 7. The key to Boston imposing its will was getting Maker to play post defense against Horford with no help. The Bucks insisted on using single coverage on Horford throughout the series and he burned coach Joe Prunty for that decision.
And to cap his final act of this series, Horford drained an 18-footer to beat the shot clock and give the Celtics a 14-point lead with 1:20 left. After Prunty called time out, Horford waved both arms back and forth to motion that the series was over. The Celtics were ready for Philly.
“It’s very satisfying,” Horford said. “Milwaukee gave us all we could handle. They just played tough and would not go away. We’d build a lead and they’d come right back. It just felt good at that point that we hung in there and we saw that they started to wear down. These are the kind of moments that you play for.
“For me, it was just enjoying with the players and with the fans that were there and it’s just emotional. I’m happy we came out on top.”
Such demonstrations are rare for Horford. He is the old head who sits in the locker room like a grandfather doing crossword puzzles, leading by example, leading by his presence.
Because he doesn’t consistently put up eye-popping numbers in a market that craves MVP seasons from its major free agents, Horford’s contract and his value to the franchise have constantly come into question. But they have never come into question within the Celtics’ organization.
The franchise needed a stalwart in the middle and a veteran leader. It also needed someone who would have no issue conceding the primary scoring responsibility to Irving and Hayward and embrace doing the little things.
Instead, with Hayward out the entire season and Irving missing the past six weeks, Horford has embraced scoring more and doing more bigger things.
“Al Horford played well throughout the entire series,” Prunty said. “Caused a lot of problems whether it was driving to the basket, midrange shots, post moves, getting to his jump hooks or getting to his spots on the floor. He’s a veteran that’s been around, been through a lot of battles through Game 7s before.”
The scoring responsibility weighed even more on Horford’s shoulders when Jaylen Brown left the game in the second quarter with a sore right hamstring and didn’t return. The Celtics’ second-leading scorer in the series was limited to 2 points. Yet, the Celtics behind Horford outscored the Bucks by 18 points in the 32 minutes Brown was off the floor.
A victory for Horford is a victory for those understated but highly valued players who keep teams together by playing the game correctly. Horford added 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and a blocked shot. He has spent the past two seasons for the Celtics filling stat sheets, making the proper pass, hitting the pivotal shot, or stretching defenses with a 3-pointer.
But because he isn’t posting triple-doubles or near the league lead in scoring or rebounding, those pundits who are consumed with stats question his impact.
Such assessments are rather laughable, especially after nights like these, when Horford plays big in the biggest moments.
“Al’s been great since he’s been my teammate, since I seen him first hand,” guard Terry Rozier said. “He’s just always bringing us together, every time out just keeping us poised. Even when we was up, making sure that we wasn’t too happy, not too high, not too low. He’s just been a big help the whole series for us young guys. Just stay in the moment.”