NBA

NBA Finals 2022: Al Horford waited to excel in Celtics’ Game 1 stunner

By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer

Al Horford waited 15 years for this moment. 

For far too long, he held an embarrassing record that he desperately wanted to shake: Nobody in NBA history had played more playoff games without making the Finals than Horford, with 141.

Four days ago, Horford finally shed that burden when the Boston Celtics reached the championship round. And in his first game on the sport’s biggest stage, all of that pent-up frustration poured out of him in a tour-de-force performance. 

Horford scored a team-high 26 points on 9-for-12 shooting, going 6-for-8 from beyond the arc to lead the Celtics to a 120-108 victory over the Golden State Warriors. 

Celtics steal Game 1 from Warriors with dominant fourth quarter

Celtics steal Game 1 from Warriors with dominant fourth quarter

Game 1 of the NBA Finals proved to be an explosive one, with Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors establishing an early lead, only for the Boston Celtics to fight their way back to a dominant win.

It was the most 3-pointers a player has ever made in his Finals debut, as well as a career high in 3s for Horford.

As he sat on the interview podium alongside his 7-year-old son, Ean, Horford was asked what it meant to him. 

“Just grateful for this opportunity,” he said, flashing a smile. “It’s just going out there and playing basketball at the end of the day. That’s just what it is.”

Horford couldn’t have timed things any better. Jayson Tatum was ice-cold Thursday. Boston was down 12 points entering the final period.

But Horford had 11 points in the fourth quarter on 4-for-4 shooting, including two huge 3s. Jaylen Brown added 10 of his 24 points then as well, as the Celtics outscored the Warriors 40-16 in the period. 

It was improbable. It was shocking. A team without any Finals experience took down a team that was a mainstay on that stage over the past decade in stunning fashion.

In fact, the Celtics became the only team to enter the fourth quarter of a Finals game with a double-digit deficit and turn it into a double-digit victory, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

The Celtics did what they do best: Show great resilience when they’re counted out. It was a team effort, with Horford leading the charge. 

For his teammates, seeing him be such a huge part of the victory was deeply rewarding. 

He’s the team’s vocal leader. He’s their savvy vet. He’s the guy who helped Tatum, Brown and Marcus Smart grow and develop during his first stint with the Celtics from 2016 to ’19 before he left for Philadelphia. 

“Al is the OG, man,” said Smart, who had 18 points, five rebounds and four assists. “He puts in the work. Don’t nobody deserve 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.”

After he signed with the 76ers in free agency in 2019, Horford’s career took some twists and turns. After one season, he was dealt to Oklahoma City, where he played only 28 games last season.

When the Celtics reacquired him in a trade in June, he had a chip on his shoulder. He had been through the ringer. He had been counted out. He wanted to prove that was a mistake.

So far this postseason, Horford has averaged 11.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists in just under 37 minutes per game. And when he needed to step up Thursday, he answered the call.

He made a critical 3-pointer with 5:10 left to give the Celtics their first lead of the second half. He stole the ball from Draymond Green and made another shot from beyond the arc 20 seconds later.

Brown called Horford’s performance “phenomenal.”

“That’s what we need,” Brown said. “That’s what we want. We want that veteran leadership to carry us over.”

Horford has infused the team with confidence all season. When the Celtics were under .500 in January, he was a steadying force. 

And against a Warriors team that has won three championships the past eight years, he was clearly not intimidated, helping ignite everyone around him.

Jayson Tatum ‘forgettable’ in Celtics’ Game 1 win

Jayson Tatum 'forgettable' in Celtics' Game 1 win

Jayson Tatum might be the face of the Boston Celtics, but he had a less than exciting part in his team’s victory in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

Even after the game, he gave us a window into his compassionate leadership style when a reporter informed him that Derrick White, who had 21 points off the bench, recently opened up about how he struggled to find his place on the team.

“Thank you for telling me that,” Horford said. “I’ll make sure I address it. … We have the most confidence in him.”

Horford’s impact on the Celtics is everywhere, spilling out behind closed doors and on the court in front of millions of viewers.

And in Game 1, he was more than ready for his long-awaited debut on the big stage.

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.  


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