MIAMI — Game over. So, in the end, it’s Al Horford’s journey. He grabbed the final rebound of the Eastern Conference finals, tossed the ball into the sky, sprinted to his teammates to celebrate, and knelt down and slapped the floor.
His time has come.
The oldest player on the Boston Celtics’ roster — six years his senior — will enjoy this trip to the NBA Finals in a way his teammates simply can’t. He will eventually play in the championship series, with the Celtics facing the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night, the day before Horford’s 36th birthday.
“Nobody deserves more,” Boston guard Jaylen Brown said.
No one in NBA history has played more playoff games without reaching the Finals than Horford. Sunday night’s 100-96 East win in Miami was his 141st playoff appearance. That dubious distinction turned into Paul Millsap’s possession when the ball started for the Celtics-Warriors in San Francisco. He played in 130 playoff games without reaching the Finals.
Horford had no idea what the moment of reaching the finals would look like. It turned out to be better than he thought.
“Just don’t know how to act,” Horford said. “Just catching up, excited. A lot of hard work. I’ve been on a lot of great teams, a lot of great teammates, and I’m so proud of this team. …I’m really grateful to be in this position.”
Horford previously played three years in Boston, reaching the Eastern Conference finals twice, before signing with Philadelphia and eventually moving to Oklahoma City. He didn’t play much for the Thunder, and they traded him back to Boston last summer — a move that was even better than the Celtics had hoped.
His stats so far in those playoffs: 11.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists in nearly 37 minutes per game.
“Ayre probably doesn’t care too much about those numbers,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “He cares about winning and this team. When he comes back it gives us a sense of security. We got Al back there and he’s always going to do the right thing on both ends of the floor and he’ll let us Calm down, he’ll show us what we missed and he’ll help us learn more about the game.”
Horford isn’t Boston’s best player. But make no mistake: he is the leader. In training, in timeouts, in the locker room, anywhere, his voice resonates.
“He’s been incredible all season,” coach Ime Udoka said. “As I mentioned, he came into training camp in very good shape, with a load on his shoulders, proud and wanting to go back to Boston. … He put everything out there, protecting the big, the small and everything in between. Everything. His leadership speaks for itself.”
Winning the East is hard enough, going through a No. 1 seed like Miami and having to win Game 7 on the road.
This is only part of the story.
Horford himself was not in Game 6 on Friday night when Boston had a chance to win the series at home, for understandable reasons. His grandfather had died the day before, despite family urging Horford to keep playing.
“My grandfather was someone I was very close to, someone I really cared about,” Horford said. “All week my mom, my family just told me to go out there and play. That’s what he wants me to do, move on, really just try to stay focused and understand that he’s calm right now.”
There is sadness. There is joy. The past few days have been a very emotional pendulum for Horford.
But given that he played college ball in Florida and was a hero in his hometown of the Dominican Republic — and countless others because he’s a Celtics fan again, maybe it’s fitting that he gets a Finals ticket in Miami.
“We’re very close to DR in Miami. Everyone’s watching. The whole country is watching,” Horford said. “I knew everyone was there. They sent me pictures, they were ready for it, and we enjoyed the time.”
But it didn’t take long for him to think ahead. The celebrations in Miami had to end. A new challenge – the ultimate challenge for basketball players, the NBA championship – awaits.
“His energy, his demeanor, come every day, as a professional, take care of his body, and as a leader, I’m proud to be with a veteran, a mentor, a brother, someone like this People share this moment with Al Horford, man,” Brown said. “He’s been great all season, really my entire career. I’m so excited to be able to share this moment with someone like him.”
Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.