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BOSTON – Let’s talk about Al Horford.
Average Al, as one Boston radio host playfully dubbed him. Uncommitted Al, as another implied in 2016, when Horford skipped an early season game to be with his wife, Amelia, for the birth of their daughter. Overpaid Al, as so many fans moaned when Horford’s scoring failed to crack double figures.
So what do you call a guy who wins a first-round series for you?
OK, so Horford had help leading battered Boston to a 112-96 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals. He had Jayson Tatum, the baby-faced, 20-year-old rookie who shrugged off the pressure of playing in his first Game 7 to score 20 points. He had Terry Rozier, Kyrie Irving’s backup until early March, who punctuated his often testy matchup with Eric Bledsoe with 26 points. He had Semi Ojeleye, the mop-up man turned starter who became a Giannis-stopper in two of the last three games of this series.
Still, Horford was magnificent. He had 26 points, eight rebounds and three assists in Game 7, but the numbers — as they often do with Horford — only tell some of the story. There was the defense he played on Thon Maker, who totaled 22 points in Games 3 and 4 … and 11 the rest of the way. There was the seamless transition he made to center (not his favorite spot) when Boston went small in its Game 5 win. There was the way he took charge in the second half Sunday, with Jaylen Brown out and the Bucks rallying, when Horford coolly knocked down three shots and assisted on another to swell a three-point lead back to 10.
“I thought he was really, really big for us,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.
Added Bucks guard Khris Middleton: “Horford was dominant.”
Dominant. That’s not a word you see associated with Horford. In a way, it’s surprising Horford has succeeded at all. Let me break down the fourth wall for a minute. I grew up in Boston. Boston is not an easy place to play. Sign a big contract — and Horford’s four-year, $113 million contract is a whopper — and you become synonymous with it. You’re not Al Horford — you’re $113 million man Al Horford.
Some can handle it. But the landscape is littered with ones who couldn’t. Carl Crawford signed a seven-year, $142 million contract with the Red Sox in 2011. He lasted two seasons. Rick Pitino inked a 10-year, $70 million deal to save the Celtics in 1997. He made it through 3 ½. Today, David Price — the embattled lefty armed with a seven-year, $217 million contract he signed in 2015 — is a handful of bad starts from being run out of town.
Hell, I’m still irritated by Aaron Sele.
Horford seemed like a candidate to join that list. He isn’t fiery, he doesn’t put up eye-popping numbers — the 18.6 points he averaged in 2013-14 are still his career best — and his salary is in rarified air occupied by names like Harden, Westbrook and James. And he came from Atlanta, transitioning from a market that exerts a pocket lighter’s worth of pressure to one that hits you with a blowtorch.
Danny Ainge knows Boston. He spent 7 ½ seasons here as a player and has run the Celtics’ basketball operations for the last 15. Did Ainge have any concerns about Horford’s ability to handle a major market?
“I consider that with all the guys we look at,” Ainge told Yahoo Sports. “But I wasn’t concerned about that with Al. He’s such a pro with how he approaches his job. And he knew what Boston was about. He knew the history. We get so much out of Al. He’s been such a stabilizing force for our team.”
That’s an attribute of Horford’s — he’s consistent. Sure, he has bad stretches — a handful of games in late February is an example — but as bodies dropped in Boston, Horford was just … there. He played 72 games, the fourth straight season he has played at least 68. He averaged 12.9 points, but saw his 3-point shooting jump to 42.9 percent, a career high. He pulled down 7.4 rebounds, but anchored the NBA’s top-ranked defense. He began the season as the third offensive option, behind All-Stars Irving and Gordon Hayward, and finished it melding together a collection of early 20-somethings gearing up for their first extensive postseason run.
“He’s been a stabilizing force since he’s walked in our locker room,” Stevens said. “I think that’s the best way to phrase it. He provides stability for all of us. Whenever you have lost other guys to injury, when people aren’t available, when things aren’t going your way, he’s likely been through it. He provides a very calming influence to the younger players.”
Has Horford ever felt the pressure of playing in an unforgiving market? “Not really,” Horford told Yahoo Sports. He was prepared for it. David Ortiz talked to him about it. Pedro Martinez, too. “I knew what I was getting into,” Horford said. “People here are passionate. They expect a lot of great things. I’m working towards that.”
Has the criticism ever gotten to him?
“One of the things I really try to focus on is on my team and getting wins,” Horford said. “I feel like that’s how it’s been since I came into the league. My focus has always been on being a team guy and helping us win. It’s never been about the numbers for me. I always base my success on my team’s success, regular season and postseason. People are going to talk, and it is what it is. I’m just worried about winning.”
On Monday, Horford will be back, his challenge even greater. Boston will have home-court advantage in the second round against Philadelphia — but it will be a considerable underdogs. The Sixers have a pair of budding superstars and a rotation of veterans that balance them out. After trying to stay in front of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Horford will have to deal with Ben Simmons. After stifling Maker, Horford must now mix it up with Joel Embiid.
To win, Boston must be steady. To win, Boston needs Al Horford.