Al Horford, a Hawk for what seemed forever, has been an ex-Hawk nearly as long. He was here for nine distinguished seasons. He has been gone for seven. He’s 36 and not what he was, though he’s good enough to be starting for the team favored to win the NBA title. For all he has done, that’s the thing he hasn’t.
He was the NBA’s 11th-oldest player this season. Of the 10 his senior, only two – LeBron James, duh, and Chris Paul – averaged more minutes. The Hawks took Horford No. 3 overall in 2007, behind Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, ahead of Mike Conley. Only five members of that draft class have made an All-Star team; Horford has done it five times.
When the Hawks landed Horford, they hadn’t made the playoffs since 1999. With him, they never missed. (Due to a torn pectoral, he was indisposed in spring 2014.) In April 2008, the rookie from Florida set the tone for the Hawks’ first playoff victory of the 21st Century. After desultory Games 1 and 2 in Boston, he screened the Ali-Foreman fight, the Rumble in the Jungle, for teammates. Duly inspired, they took the 66-win Celtics to Game 7.
Muhammad Ali rope-a-doped George Foreman in 1974. Horford, born in 1986, has always seemed an old soul. His famous Florida team won consecutive NCAA titles – that hasn’t happened since – without a star, though Horford was first among equals. The only time in the 2007 Big Dance the Gators had to have a hoop came in the Sweet 16 against Butler. Corey Brewer threw him the ball and yelled, “Go score!” Horford complied.
The Florida crew was the first of many splendid teams with Horford as anchor. Despite his youth, he became the Hawks’ leader on arrival. Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Marvin Williams had been here longer; Mike Bibby came in February 2008. Horford wasn’t the best player – we forget how good Johnson was – but he was the most essential.
That band of Hawks won 53 games in 2009-2010. Five seasons later, a much different group – different except for Horford – won 60. Four Hawks graced the 2015 All-Star Game, Horford among them. If you had him on your team, you were a good team.
He signed with Boston in 2016, days after the Hawks signed Dwight Howard. Within a year, Howard and Mike Budenholzer were gone and the club had hired Travis Schlenk to execute a teardown/rebuild. Three summers later, Horford made the strangest choice of his career, signing with Philadelphia. The man who could complement anyone couldn’t complement Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
The 76ers traded him to Oklahoma City, which wasn’t concerned with winning. In March 2021, the Thunder announced he wouldn’t play for the rest of the season, though he was in good health. That marks the only time a team with Horford on its roster hasn’t made the playoffs.
The Celtics re-acquired him in June 2021. Last season he started as a stretch-4 alongside center Robert Williams. Boston made the NBA finals, losing to Golden State. For much of this season, Horford has been the only big man among starting C’s.
This doesn’t mean he has reverted to playing with his back to the basket. On offense, he’s mostly a floor spacer. He stands in the corner. He waits for someone to drive and find him. He has taken 85 shots over 13 playoff games; 65 have been 3-pointers. Yes, he has evolved. Over eight playoff runs as a Hawk, he tried 41 treys.
Malcolm Brogdon, who’s from Atlanta, informed reporters that Horford stopped practice Tuesday, the day before the Eastern Conference finals against Miami were to begin. “He told us to tighten it up,” Brogdon said.
Brogdon is one of many gifted Celtics. Jayson Tatum is a great player; Jaylen Brown, also from Atlanta, is very good. But this team, like many before it, tends to defer to Horford. “A big piece for us is to want to see him go out on top,” Brogdon said.
Full disclosure: I’ve never – well, not since Bill Russell retired – been a Celtics’ fan. But I’ve never not been a fan of Horford’s. If they win, he wins. In the grand scheme, that’d be OK.
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