BOSTON – Al Horford was already 36 minutes in to a 37-minute shift on a night when he probably should not have ever stepped foot in the arena. Feeling ill on Tuesday, the Celtics forward was told to stay home for the team’s Wednesday morning shootaround, and was declared “questionable” for Game 2 later that night.
Yet, Horford not only showed up intent on playing, he played from nearly three minutes left in the third quarter, all the way through the fourth, in anchoring Boston’s run from down 12 to within a basket with the clock closing in on a minute to go. With homecourt advantage hanging in the balance, and Indiana Pacers leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic with the ball in his hands, the only thing Horford still had to find a way to deliver on this night was the play of the game.
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With a chance to put Indiana in full command of Game 2, Horford was switched on Bogdanovic, and Bogdanovic took it rack. Only when Bogdanovic got there, it was Horford who mustered the will and the mettle to meet him at the rim, reject the shot, and ignite a 10-0 run to end a 99-91 Celtic victory.
“Whatever I had to do to get a stop,” Horford said while huddled inside of a hoodie sweatshirt about an hour after the final buzzer. “I felt like that was a big play for us there. We turned it into offense at the other end.”
Jaylen Brown drove the paint in transition, then found Jayson Tatum in the corner for a 3-pointer and a lead Boston would not relinquish, as Boston closed out its second straight comeback from a double-digit deficit. It was a night where Kyrie Irving was the brightest star with 37 points, and Tatum generated perhaps the biggest buzz with 26 points, but it was a night that would have all be for naught if not for the grit and the guile of Horford.
“Take my hat off to Al,” Brown said. “True warrior. True professional. He gave us everything he had. Everybody knows he’s battling some illness. He came out and was tremendous for us. He helped us get over the hump.”
Horford did not score through the first three quarters of the game, but had four key points early in the fourth as the Celtics entered the final 12 minutes down 11, and wound up with 10 rebounds and two blocks as Boston closed the game on a 31-12 run spanning the fourth quarter.
“We’re lucky to have Al,” Aron Baynes said. “That’s what Al does day in and day out. He’s able to come in and change the game. Credit to him to be able to go out there and still be the player he is even though he isn’t feeling 100 percent. It’s great to have a player like him. It’s always fun to be able to watch was he can do.”
While the block of Bogdanovic was the biggest defensive play of the game, Horford was at the center of every bit of the shutdown final quarter in which the Pacers scored just one basket in the first 8:34 of the fourth. He protected the paint as part of a small lineup, switched out to the perimeter to guard 3-point shooters, and controlled the glass with each Pacer miss.
A night that will hardly go down as one of the statistical best of Horford’s distinguished career might have been one of the most impressive given the circumstances under which he played nearly the final 15 minutes of the game.
“I had, I guess, a virus,” Horford said. “Just trying to do everything I could to get back on the floor. Glad that I was able to come out tonight and help the team.
“I prepared myself like a normal game,” he added. “Just focus like a normal game. I just missed shootaround. But other than that, I was mentally (preparing), watching film and doing the things I needed to do to be ready to go.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after the game he told Horford he may have to go the distance in the fourth, but that Horford was probably “pissed” at him for not calling the timeout he promised to early in the quarter. Instead, Horford went all the way to the timeout at the 3:24 mark of the game before he got an extended break, then went the rest of the way to the final triumphant horn.
“At that point, it’s whatever I can do to help our team win,” he said. “I really just continued to push.
“It was a lot of fun tonight. Regardless, I was just happy I was out there.”
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