It took 15 seasons and 141 playoff games before Al Horford reached the NBA Finals and he surprisingly played the role of hero in his first expedition.
Now the 35-year-old Horford aims to help the Boston Celtics take a 2-0 series lead when they battle the Golden State Warriors on Sunday night in San Francisco.
Boston impressively rallied for a 120-108 victory in Thursday’s Game 1 and Horford led the way with 26 points on 9-of-12 shooting. In the 1,092nd overall game of his career, Horford made a career best six 3-pointers (in eight attempts).
“Just grateful for this opportunity,” Horford said. “It’s just going out there and playing basketball at the end of the day. That’s just what it is. … Just excited to be able to share this stage with these group of guys.”
The feeling is mutual after Horford helped Boston recover from a 15-point late third-quarter deficit to hand the Warriors a painful home loss.
“We were ecstatic for him,” Boston guard Marcus Smart said. “He puts in the work. Nobody deserves to be here more than him. The way that he carries himself professionally, the professionalism he comes to this game with every day, we knew it was only a matter of time for him to have a big game, and continue to have a big game.”
Horford’s final-quarter scoring splurge (11 points on 4-of-4 shooting) and the Celtics’ fourth-period explosion leave Golden State in a dire position on Sunday night.
The Warriors thought they were cruising to a victory until Boston’s uprising. The Celtics outscored Golden State 40-16 in the period and buried 9 of 12 3-point attempts in that time.
“Obviously everybody is down,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “You want to go out and win the first one. We had every opportunity, 12-point lead going into the fourth. Guys are bummed, as you would expect. But it’s a seven-game series for a reason.”
Golden State star Stephen Curry recorded 34 points and seven 3-pointers but only had four points in the final quarter and missed his lone attempt from behind the arc.
He knows his team let a big opportunity get away.
“It’s not ideal,” Curry said. “But I believe in who we are and how we deal with adversity, how we responded all year, how we’ve responded in the playoffs after a loss. So learn a lot from that fourth quarter.
“We know they are a good team. So are we. We have to respond on Sunday.”
The Celtics have been “Road Warriors” in the postseason.
Boston is 8-2 away from home, including three wins at Miami in the Eastern Conference finals and a Game 6 victory at defending-champion Milwaukee that kept the Celtics alive in the conference semifinals.
The trend continued with the stellar fourth-quarter rally.
“I think it’s important to win any game you can,” Boston reserve Payton Pritchard said. “Especially to come here and win one on their home court is huge.”
While Jaylen Brown (24 points) and Derrick White (21 points, five 3-pointers) combined with Horford for 71 points, star Jayson Tatum was just 3-of-17 shooting for 12 points. He did deliver 13 assists, the most in his career.
“I had a bad shooting night,” Tatum said. “I just tried to impact the game in other ways. We’re in the championship. We’re in the Finals. All I was worried about was trying to get a win, and we did. That’s all that matters at this point.
“So I don’t expect to shoot that bad again. But if it means we keep winning, I’ll take it.”
Golden State certainly doesn’t envision falling behind 2-0 in the series. But the collapse in Game 1 ramps up the importance of Sunday’s game.
“It’s a different feeling,” Kerr said. “Obviously you go into Game 2 with more of a sense of desperation.”
Not to be taken lightly is that this is the Warriors’ sixth NBA Finals in eight years. Guys like Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green aren’t surrendering after one setback.
“It’s just nothing to panic about,” Green said. “It’s the first team to win four games, not the first to win one.”
–Field Level Media