It’s time for Celtics to reward Al Horford with his first NBA title.




Celtics

Horford has played 181 playoff games in his career. Only Karl Malone (193) and John Stockton (182) played more without winning a championship.

Al Horford celebrated after the Celtics swept the Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, giving the 17-year veteran the chance to win his first NBA championship.

When considering all that Al Horford has brought in his second stint with the Celtics, I keep catching myself flashing back to one of the final scenes before the first one ended.

The 2018-19 Celtics had some things in common with the current edition that is four wins from the NBA championship (high external and internal expectations, a roster overflowing with talent) and at least one crucial difference (a stunning lack of camaraderie and chemistry by the time the playoffs rolled around).

To a man, and independent of role or playing time, the current Celtics seem to genuinely like and play for each other. Let’s just say those attributes were, um, fleeting with the 2018-19 version.

I’ll spare you the full rehash since the chief divider, Kyrie Irving, now stands between the Celtics and their first title since 2008, and the Kyrie: The Boston Years storyline is getting new life.

Let’s briefly revisit that Horford vignette from the immediate aftermath of the end of that 2018-19 Celtics season, an implosion of the roster soon to follow the one that occurred on the court in a five-game conference semifinals loss to the Bucks. (Milwaukee, it should be noted, did not even have Jrue Holiday yet. Irving and the Celtics got cooked by George Hill.)

The Celtics locker room, and overall vibe, after that loss was as weird and unsettling as I’ve seen. While Irving soliloquized on the podium about his future (“I just want to make it to Boston first, you know, safely …”) the Celtics remaining in the locker room fiddled with their phones and ignored each other.

It was Horford who finally stood up, cut through the awkwardness and indifference, and spoke to a swarm of reporters with his usual thoughtfulness about the ugly end, and what might come next.

Horford was asked about an opt-out in his contract that he had the right to exercise. He said he hoped to remain with the Celtics. Two months later, after reports that a mystery team was interested in his services, he signed a four-year, $109 million contract … with the rival 76ers. Ouch.

When Horford, who in July 2016 had become the first prime-of-career, top-end free agent ever to sign with the Celtics, bolted for Philadelphia, it was devastating. Losing the mercurial Irving, who in that Bucks series stopped playing for the Celtics long before he officially stopped playing for the Celtics, was one thing.

But losing Horford, the ultimate teammate? It meant what Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens were building had collapsed on itself, and the implications stained those who remained. Were Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown really franchise cornerstones? Were they copacetic? How long would it be before the Celtics were true contenders again?

The Celtics survived that catastrophic ‘19 offseason better than anyone anticipated, largely because Tatum and Brown, as hard-working as they are talented, continued their trek toward all-league status. The Celtics made the conference finals the first season without Horford, who did not fit with Philly — an indictment of that organization if there has ever been one — and soon was exiled to Oklahoma City for what ended up being a respite.

When Stevens, in his first trade since moving into the president of basketball operations role after the 2020-21 season, reacquired Horford from the Thunder for creaky-kneed guard Kemba Walker, it felt like a wrong had been righted.

Horford is a quintessential Celtic — versatile and unselfish, proud, and feisty when challenged (see: Giannis Antetokounmpo, floor-bound, Game 4 of the 2022 conference semifinals). I’ll always believe the misery of the final weeks of that ‘18-‘19 season — along with 109 million other reasons — drove him to Philly. But in style and spirit, he’s always belonged here.

Reacquiring Horford was one of several Auerbachian moves Stevens has made in constructing the best team in the NBA. (The Derrick White deal has to be his best, right? Though I’ll hear you on Jrue Holiday, who is going to be the difference in the Finals, you’ll see.)

Horford turns 38 Monday, three days before the Celtics begin the most challenging phase of this championship quest. He’s a young man in life, but not by professional basketball standards, and it’s always amusing to watch a “This again?” look flash across his face before he answers another question about his age with his usual thoughtfulness.

Horford is in an odd place historically. He has played 181 playoff games — including seven as a rookie in the Hawks’ first-round battle with the eventual champion Celtics in 2008. Only the Jazz’s pick-and-roll tandem of Karl Malone (193) and John Stockton (182) played more without winning a championship.

Should the Celtics win, Horford would be the 10th-oldest player to win a championship. (Current Celtics assistant coach Sam Cassell won at age 38, with those ‘08 Celtics; Robert Parish is the oldest to do so, collecting a ring as a 43-year-old bystander for the 1996-97 Bulls.)

Al Horford is averaging 9.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.9 assists in the playoffs.

No one should require a reminder that Horford is still essential. The Celtics are 9-1 in Kristaps Porzingis’s absence during this playoff run in part because Horford stepped into the starting lineup without skipping a beat. No one really thinks of him as a bench player anyway; he’s more like the sixth starter.

Should the Celtics defeat the Mavericks in the Finals, Horford will be the person everyone is second-most happy for, right after themselves, of course.

He remains one of the easiest Celtics to appreciate, as conscientious and effective as ever, even at his advanced basketball age. (Somewhere, he just sensed I wrote that and scowled.)

But we all know this, and hopefully he does, too. There aren’t many gifts Horford could receive on his 38th birthday that equal in value the one the Celtics got when he came back to Boston.





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