Three years ago, Al Horford felt the clock ticking on his career and a chance to win a title. So, he left the Celtics for the 76ers. But Horford was a disappointing fit in Philadelphia. In a cruel turn, the 76ers salary-dumped him onto the tanking Thunder. For a player whose teams had never missed the playoffs, Horford was further than ever from his desired championship. His contract was so onerous, it appeared he might toil in Oklahoma City years before it’d make sense to flip him. By then, the fear was, Horford could be washed up.
On his last day as a 35-year-old, Horford scored 26 points in the NBA Finals.
This wasn’t the highest-scoring Finals debut. Far from it. Allen Iverson scored 48 in his first Finals game in 2001.
But Iverson was MVP that year.
Horford isn’t even a star anymore.
Horford’s record of 141 career playoff games before a Finals appearance drew plenty of attention leading up to Boston’s Game 1 victory Thursday. In some ways, it’s a shame it took Horford so long to reach this stage. He was a five-time All-Star with the Hawks, made another All-Star game in his first stint with the Celtics and was expected to be the missing piece with the 76ers.
Now, Horford’s starring days are behind him. Though hoping Horford would contribute when re-acquiring him last offseason, Boston made the trade with the Thunder in part to salary-dump even-more-expensive Kemba Walker.
But Horford’s long journey to this point makes it all the more satisfying. Long admired as a consummate professional, Horford looks more at ease than ever. He sets a strong example, does the little things and – occasionally – rises way above expectations.
Horford’s 26 points are among the most ever in a Finals debut by someone who made neither an All-Star or all-league team that season:
Horford was the most dependable Celtic through three quarters Thursday, scoring 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting and playing sound defense. Horford’s ability to to handle his defensive assignment on the perimeter stood in stark contrast to Robert Williams, who too often got out of position. Yet, it appeared that stellar play would come in a loss.
Then, in Boston’s fourth-quarter explosion, Horford cooked along with everyone Celtic, scoring 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting:
Here's all of Al's buckets from Game 1 ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/OGCq8bMr38
— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) June 3, 2022
After his final bucket – scored while being fouled – Horford flexed in celebration.
He handled years of LeBron James tormenting him in the East. He handled time bouncing from Boston to Philadelphia to Oklahoma City and back to Boston. He handled the Celtics’ slow start to this season.
What was a little contact from a defender?
Heck, what does the pressure of the NBA Finals even matter?
It took Horford a long time to get here. So long, he faded from stardom.
But he was still ready to shine in this moment.