May 9, 2022. Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. The Boston Celtics trail the Bucks 2-1 in the second round of the NBA playoffs. Milwaukee leads Boston 80-78 with just under 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter.
In playoff basketball, a single moment can turn a game on a dime. Sometimes, it can change the landscape of an entire series. Maybe even an entire postseason.
On that Monday night in Milwaukee, Al Horford did all of the above.
After setting a quick screen for Marcus Smart and rolling out to his right, Horford got the ball on the wing with only one man between him and the basket: Giannis Antetokounmpo. In the blink of an eye, Big Al caught the two-time MVP with a pump fake and blew by him for one of the best dunks of his career. Horford completely detonated on the Greek Freak and even knocked him to the ground on his way down, courtesy of an incidental elbow to the chin.
Horford’s poster sent an undeniable surge of energy throughout the Celtics, reviving a C’s squad that had trailed by as much as 10 points in the contest. Many would argue he saved Boston’s season that night. After all, the Dominican big man dropped a playoff career-high with 30 points on 11-of-14 shooting and 5-of-7 shooting from three.
Earlier in the game, Antetokounmpo had thrown down a huge slam and stared down Horford. Horford simply responded by nodding his head and saying “OK,” but the veteran’s face said it all. Giannis had poked the bear big time, and Papa Al was ready for revenge.
After Boston’s 116-108 victory, Horford told reporters that something “switched” in him after Giannis’ dunk.
"“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. At that point, I think just something switched with me in the game.”"
In a postseason that ended with a trip to the NBA Finals, Horford produced the stuff of legends against the Bucks. Typically known for his stoic leadership and subdued personality, Horford showed a remarkable amount of emotion during Boston’s second-round showdown.
And the craziest part of it all? Big Al did this a month before his 36th birthday.
AL Horford’s defensive prowess and long-range accuracy
Over the years, Horford has provided Boston with elite defense against some of the NBA’s most daunting bigs. On paper, Horford’s six-foot-nine frame seems undersized at the center position. He has debunked that claim on countless occasions dating back to his college days.
At the University of Florida, Horford won back-to-back NCAA championships with the Gators. He was named to the 2007 All-SEC Team and won SEC Tourney MVP. During Florida’s second title run, Horford nearly averaged a double-double on 60.8% shooting from the field with 1.8 blocks per game.
After bringing the Gators their first March Madness titles in program history, Horford was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks with the No. 3 pick. He made four All-Star games and reached All-NBA status with Atlanta. 16 years later, Big Al is still going strong.
As a defender, Horford still gives teams problems with his supreme versatility. His ability to switch onto smaller players and guard them at a high level has aided the Boston Celtics on numerous occasions. During their 2022 Finals run, Boston switched on defense a lot. Even at the ripe age of 37, Horford’s skill set can unlock that “switchability.”
Over the years, Horford has also developed into a wicked 3-point shooter. Last season, he led the entire NBA in 3-point percentage. Horford shot 44.6% from three and nailed 2.3 treys per game, setting career highs in both percentage and makes from beyond the arc.
A career 39.6% long-range shooter for his playoff career, Horford has given Boston a level of spacing most teams don’t have. Adding Kristaps Porzingis to the mix will only make life harder on opposing defenses, especially when two rim-protecting snipers like Horford and Porzingis are sharing the floor.
Horford received a heavy diet of open threes last year, and those uncontested jumpers won’t go away with the swapping of Marcus Smart for Porzingis. The seven-foot-three Latvian averaged 11.7 more points than Smart last season while shooting 4.9% better from downtown on about the same number of attempts.
It is safe to say Horford could see his steady volume of wide-open threes take another leap next season for the Boston Celtics.
Al Horford’s impact as a leader for the Boston Celtics
As Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown inch closer to their primes, Horford’s leadership will continue to play an integral part in Boston’s success. The Jays both started their careers playing next to Horford, and he has witnessed most of the star duo’s development through countless highs and lows.
Horford was there when a rookie Tatum dunked on LeBron James in a Game 7. He was there for Brown’s 50-point explosion against Orlando two seasons ago. He was there when Tatum lit up the Bucks for 46 points in an elimination game on the road.
However, Horford was also there when Tatum injured his ankle on the opening play of Game 7 against Miami last postseason. He was there for the worst series of Tatum’s career in the 2022 Finals, along with Brown’s ultimate low point against the 2023 Heat.
Through thick and thin, Horford has always gone to war for Boston. The big man has been defeating Father Time since he joined the Boston Celtics in 2016 as a 30-year-old. After underperforming on offense last postseason, the Godfather could enter the 2023-24 campaign with a serious chip on his shoulder.
Whether Horford starts in the frontcourt with Porzingis next season or comes off the bench, one thing is for sure: the legend of Big Al will keep growing.