By Travis Babcock
Overtime. Game 3. Twenty-two seconds in Joel Embiid goes up for a turnaround jumper only to see his shot swatted away and into the hands of Al Horford. A minute later Al cans a layup and later rips down a big rebound with just under 3 minutes to play. A stoppage of play ensues and the camera spots Dario Saric jogging to the scorers table. He makes eye contact with Embiid and with 2 minutes and 42 seconds to go in what could very well be the last chance they have at a realistic attempt of keeping their season alive, the best player the 76ers employ takes a seat on the bench.
Fear was rising that playoff Al was about to be unleashed.
Brett Brown decided to sit Embiid for defensive purposes based on the reality that Horford has been able to get whatever he wants in this series. Though Embiid did not rest long, the sheer fact that the 76ers felt the need to take out one of the game's brightest and skilled defensive players in such a critical moment certainly means something.
By statistical measures Al Horford did not have a good game. He contributed 13 points on 41% shooting to go along with 6 boards, 2 assists, 3 blocks, and a plus/minus rating of 4. It looked as if we might be seeing the “Average Al” references from the likes of Lou Merloni and his gang of Horford haters as they begin crawling out of the dark corners of the internet.
Al Horford had different plans.
Entering the overtime period, Horford had taken just 9 shots, totaling a mere 6 points. With the game on the line in a hostile environment and a golden opportunity to take complete control of the series, Horford seized the moment. Totally dominating the last few minutes, he tallied 7 points, 2 rebounds, a block, the go ahead layup with 5 seconds remaining, and made the biggest steal of the series with an interception of a very lackadaisical Ben Simmons inbounds pass and was fouled with 3.9 seconds to play. Two free throws later, the game was over. Confetti would not make its way down from the rafters a 2nd time, and the Celtics walked off the floor with a 3-0 series lead.
"He's a stabilizer for our group. There's no question about it. When things get going poorly everybody looks to Al. Including the coaches." "He's unbelievable"
Brad Stevens on Al Horford after Game 3 against the Philadelphia 76ers.
He has been a dominant force on both ends of the court in this series, making mincemeat of both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid along the way.
A lot has been said about what Al brings to the table that doesn't show up on the stat sheet. He is our veteran leader and our calming force. He makes the right basketball play 99.9% of the time, and is our defensive anchor. He is one of the best passers in the game for a guy his size. Fundamentally, Horford is one of the most solid all around players the game has to offer. That is why he is a 5 time All Star and an All NBA 3rd team member (2011). That is why he garnered some Defensive Player of the Year talk while ranking in the top 15 in the league in defensive efficiency rating. That is why at the time he was considered the biggest free agent signing in the history of the Boston Celtics. He is now a big reason why this team is on the precipice of reaching the NBA Finals, with only Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers standing in their way.
Amidst a season plagued with injuries and full of change, Al Horford has remained a constant for this team. This postseason we have been treated to statistical beast Al. Or, "Super" Al, if you will. He has elevated his numbers clean across the board, silencing even the loudest of Horford haters. He is flexing all over the court, jumping up and down yelling and screaming, scrapping with players, diving for loose balls, and making big time play after big time play. You can catch him leading player discussions during timeouts, and calling out plays on defense during critical moments of each game.
Al Horford is this team's driving force. When he isn't playing well, the team doesn't play well. When he's flying all over the court, snagging offensive rebounds and chasing down guys in transition, the team plays with nearly unstoppable energy and confidence. Without question his leadership and veteran savvy has been a big difference maker in these playoffs. This team will go as far as Al Horford will take them, only time will tell how far that may be.
But for now I leave you with this- Al Horford is indisputably and unequivocally good at basketball. Case open and shut.