By Charlotte Wilder
FOX Sports Columnist
Where were you when Al Horford, the 36-year-old beating heart of the Boston Celtics, went off in the fourth quarter to beat the Golden State Warriors 120-108 in Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Finals?
Where were you when he scored 26 points and hit eight 3-pointers, the most 3s of his 15-year career?
Where were you when he said, after winning the first Finals game he has ever played in, despite appearing in 141 playoff games, that it was, “a lot of fun”?
If these aren’t questions that our NBA-obsessed grandchildren ask us someday, we have done Big Al a great injustice. If Massachusetts doesn’t sew his likeness onto its state flag, the region might not truly appreciate him. If a statue of Horford doesn’t appear outside the Brutalist-style building that is Boston City Hall — honestly, it would probably soften the place up a bit — the city hasn’t fully understood what this man has done.
He didn’t do it alone, obviously.
If Horford is the heart, Marcus Smart is the soul. I’m not sure I’ve ever watched someone have so much fun playing in a big-time basketball game.
Listening to Smart hype up his teammates as he was mic’d up, made me want him on my team — as in, my proverbial, personal, friends-and-family team. It was fascinating listening to him tell his teammates that “this isn’t the Heat series” and explain how they had to play defense differently against the Warriors.
The beauty of this Celtics team, however, is everyone can be a star. Horford said it was Jaylen Brown who had the biggest impact on the game.
At the start of the fourth quarter, I was a Golden State Worrier about the Celtics. Down 12 points, Boston looked cooked.
Steph Curry sank 3s, Klay Thompson sank 3s and Draymond Green played the tough, unrelenting kind of basketball that he always does. Celtics star Jayson Tatum was mired in a 3-for-17 shooting night (Tatum did, in fairness, put up a career-high 13 assists in his game-long effort to make the smart play).
It seemed like the most Celtics fans could hope for was a better showing in Game 2.
And then Brown came out swinging, scoring 10 points in the fourth. Horford scored 11. Rookie head coach Ime Udoka outcoached Steve Kerr and the Warriors’ staff. And Boston stunned the Warriors in the Chase Center, handing Golden State its first playoff loss in its new building.
Al Horford shines in NBA Finals debut
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“[At the] start of the fourth quarter, with the way [Brown] came out and played, with his energy and scoring, but also then Rob Williams gets a lob dunk [from Brown’s pass],” Horford said. “I just think that that was the start for us of something there.”
There is something reassuring about this matchup. I’m biased as a Celtics fan, so I’m definitely enjoying this more than others.
It could be a tough matchup for neutral fans, who have to watch the Warriors fight for their fourth championship in seven years against a team from Boston. Anyone who isn’t from New England and cares about sports is legally obligated to hate a Boston-based organization.
But the storylines of each team make both more sympathetic than they would be going off the above facts alone, I’d venture to say. I got yelled at on Twitter when I said it was nice that this group of Celtics —who’ve been on the verge of the Finals since 2018 — finally made it, so perhaps this is not a popular opinion.
However, hear me out.
After Thompson’s two gruesome leg injuries, it didn’t seem likely that we’d see him, Curry, and Green back together on the NBA’s biggest stage. Last season, the Warriors lost two play-in tournament games to miss the playoffs altogether. Now, even in a loss, we’re watching them execute at the highest level (except for the total fourth-quarter collapse, but hey, pobody’s nerfect).
As for the Celtics, I wrote in 2018 that America would love them if they weren’t from Boston. But at this point, it seems like these players have worn down some non-Boston NBA fans. I’ve had friends who hate the Celtics say that it’s frustrating how likable this group is.
So, what I’m really trying to say is that there’s a kind of comforting nostalgia to seeing the Warriors back in the mix after their legendary runs in the 2010s, and a proud parent feeling to watching the Celtics finally make it there. As Fox Sports’ own Melissa Rohlin wrote, it’s the “old heads vs. the new heads.”
(Although Jayson Tatum needs a better outfit for Game 2.)
Watching Golden State and blocking out absolutely anything else happening in the world makes it feel almost remotely possible to pretend it’s 2018, and we don’t know what COVID is. Or that it’s 2016, and the team is about to blow a massive lead to give us the greatest meme of all time (people forget that the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals after a 73-win season and the first-ever unanimous MVP in Curry).
It reminds me of a time when Twitter was fun.
Last night might not have been very enjoyable for Warriors fans, but you can’t say it wasn’t amazing basketball.
The Celtics gave Golden State a run for its money by shooting well, playing small-ball and passing with precision. It was familiar but surprising, because the new heads showed the old heads that Finals experience doesn’t count for much if you can’t execute.
The Celtics are now 8-2 on the road in these playoffs, and they’ll try to make that 9-2 on Sunday night before heading back to Boston.
Where Big Al Horford will hopefully be handed the keys to the city.
Charlotte Wilder is a general columnist and cohost of “The People’s Sports Podcast” for FOX Sports. She’s honored to represent the constantly neglected Boston area in sports media, loves talking to sports fans about their feelings and is happiest eating a hot dog in a ballpark or nachos in a stadium. Follow her on Twitter @TheWilderThings.
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