Al Horford wakes up Celtics to take down Cavs, advance to Eastern Conference finals

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BOSTON — When Jayson Tatum first got to the NBA, Al Horford was in his prime. Horford has made a career of being the metronome that keeps his team running, having a sense for when the team needs cool and when it needs fire.

The Celtics players talk about never being too high or too low. They learned it all from Horford years ago.

But this isn’t his team anymore. He ran things when Tatum and Jaylen Brown were pups in this league. The ball was always in his steady hands for a growing Celtics team.

Then he saw what else was out there in the league, returning a few years later to be one of the faces in a strong supporting cast built around Tatum and Brown.

Now the Jays were the big dogs. With that came a higher ceiling for the franchise, finally capable of reaching the NBA Finals. But there has also been an ebb and flow of intensity that comes with being a front-runner.

“At the end of the day, if you say you want to win, everybody wants to win until it’s really time to win,” Joe Mazzulla said Wednesday night after the Celtics beat the Cavs 113-98 to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. “Because then you have to nut up and do a bunch of s— you don’t want to do.”

Turning 38 in just a few weeks, Horford doesn’t want to dive out of bounds chasing loose balls. But in the second quarter, his team was flat and was blowing a closeout game against a team missing two of its best scorers. Horford said he knew this was the moment where he had to be the source of energy.

“I felt like we lacked it in the first quarter, and when I came back in the second, I felt like we needed to step it up,” Horford said. “We were talking about it a lot in the huddle, but we weren’t really getting it done. We had a great opportunity here at home to handle this, and I knew it was going to take a lot more than just playing a normal game.”

Horford said he felt he had to do something. Then this happened.

“I just wanted to bring that energy to our group, and the group was able to feed off it,” he said.

“Al leads instrumentally, not much of a talker,” Mazzulla said. “Tonight you saw his gift. His gift is just passion, inspiration, toughness, competitive nature.”

This was not a contentious series fueled by rivalry. After the game was over, Donovan Mitchell poked his head into the Celtics locker room and flipped the bird at his friend Jaylen Brown with a big smile. Marcus Morris Sr. and Tristan Thompson still have friends in the Celtics organization.

The drive had to come from within, and Horford saw it wasn’t there. He has watched them blow their opportunities to do things the easy way too many times and had to intervene. He’s too old to deal with wasting time. That is the most precious resource he has left.

“Obviously his character, how he treats everybody, how everybody respects him. He always puts the team first, he’s always been like that,” Tatum said. “And he just kind of sets the tone. As somebody that’s at this stage of his career and his age doing all these things, there’s really no excuse for the rest of us.”

Horford finished with 22 points, 15 rebounds and five assists. Only LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have also reached those numbers at age 37, per Stathead.

“It feels great because we won,” Horford said when informed of his feat. “So that’s the only satisfaction I get out of it.”

For everything Horford did on the court, from chasing loose balls to locking up Darius Garland to shooting his way out of his 0-for-11 slump from downtown, that’s the part that stands out. His name is alongside two of the greatest ever and he didn’t care, as long as they won.

“It’s nothing short of special. Al’s like a brother to me, someone I love dearly,” Tatum said. “I give Al a lot of credit for how he’s transitioned and adapted his game to stay playing a major role and having a huge impact. And I’ve watched how professional he is, how he carries himself, how he takes care of his body. I stole a lot of things from Al throughout my career, just having a routine every single day.”

In this series, Horford became the centerpiece of Mazzulla’s calculus to stop Cleveland’s offense. With Kristaps Porziņģis out, Boston had more freedom to run their “15” coverage, switching the center onto the guard throughout the night.

Horford is especially equipped for these switches. He’s a center who can keep his hand extended in the ballhandler’s face without fouling and while staying on balance. He can back up just enough to stay in front of his man but still bother them enough to disrupt their rhythm.

“As a man, we had to look in the mirror and step up and try to do our best,” Horford said. “And for me, it was just trying to do whatever I could and use my lengths and just staying solid, and just continuing to take on that challenge time after time.”

That meant Darius Garland targeting Horford in isolation every quarter, but Garland went 1-for-5 at the rim as he kept attacking Horford to no avail.

“That’s when the math really started to shift,” Mazzulla said. “So it was one-on-one, once he got inside of 3, to me, once Mitchell went out, the whole thing was ‘How are you going to take away their speed, how are you going to take away their 3-point attempts?’”

Boston’s switching put Cleveland into isolation and disrupted its rhythm, just as Mazzulla wanted. He was having Horford aggressively switch up on actions to the point that Mobley was getting free rolls to the basket. Mazzulla was so committed to the math advantage that he had his defenders stay home on shooters, even if Mobley could score at will. Anything to keep Cleveland from getting shooting rhythm.

“There’s obviously things that you have to focus on, rebounding and stuff like that, but it made us answer the bell,” Mazzulla said. “You’ve got to guard your yard. This is what it takes to win this game, this is what it takes to win this series.”

Horford could have scoffed at being put on an island. Asking him to stop Garland repeatedly, late in a series where he already is stepping into bigger minutes, could have been too much to ask. But these moments are when buy-in proves to be real.

“Just as a leader of our group, we follow him,” Horford said. “He demands a lot from us and we’re right there.”

Horford could have demanded a bigger leadership role the moment Mazzulla got the job. The Celtics coach was in a vulnerable position. It would’ve been easy for the locker room to say Horford is older than Mazzulla, so that’s the voice we’re following. So Mazzulla expressed gratitude to Horford for showing the team that if the Celtics’ oldest player is willing to buy into the program, everyone should get on board.

“He made a decision to trust me, which he didn’t have to do,” Mazzulla said. “A guy who has been around as long as he has, the stature that he’s had, the things that he’s accomplished, the coaches that he’s worked for, he didn’t have to. From day one, I felt the trust and the support, so I’m grateful for that.”

At this stage of Horford’s career, he’s done just about everything in the NBA except win a championship. He gave his trust to Mazzulla, to the Jays, to everyone else. And when they needed someone to step up, he delivered.

“Whatever the team needs,” Derrick White said. “Al Horford will do it.”

(Photo: Adam Glanzman / Getty Images)

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