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The Celtics are nowhere without Al Horford

Without Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics are nothing. But the sage vet’s return to Boston has proven just as pivotal, if not more so.

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

For perhaps the first time in four games, everything seemed like it was going the Brooklyn Nets’ way. Behind in the series three games to none, and having trailed by as many as 15 points in the do-or-die Game 4 contest against the sweep-minded Boston Celtics, Kevin Durant and company had clawed their way within three points. And if you’re the Celtics, despite the robust resilience you’ve put on display for the better part of half a season, that’s a nightmare scenario. The Nets may lack offensive options galore, but the options they do have — the All-Pro Durant-Kyrie Irving tandem, in particular — are formidable and capable of swinging a series in their direction off the strength of a single triple. We’ve seen them do it before; who’s to say they wouldn’t pull it off again?

Of course, though, there’s the element of human error at play. At the free throw line, down three, Durant had a chance to trim the ever-fading Celtics’ lead to just one. That meant that the Nets could foul Boston, hope they missed a free throw on the other end, and have a chance to tie or win the game. But Durant missed the back end, leaving Boston with a two-point lead and a chance to possibly seal the game.

The ball landed in Jaylen Brown’s hands, and he was almost certainly about to be fouled. Instead, he lobbed a dangerous pass forward to Marcus Smart, who was streaking down court, hoping perhaps to ice the game or dribble away some time. Brown’s pass just made it beyond Durant’s 7-foot-5-inch wingspan and into Smart’s breadbasket, and naturally, Smart charged toward the rim. The resurgent Blake Griffin met him as he rose for a layup, causing a contested layup to doink off the back of the rim, and suddenly, the ball — and the game — was up for grabs.

Who else was there but Al Horford.

From the start of the possession, Horford didn’t panic. He ran with Smart, prepared to receive a pass on the break or attach himself to one of the Nets’ many hopeful rebounders, boxing them out. He performed a textbook side shuffle to get the exact position he’d need to follow up a potential miss, sealing off Irving, and having more momentum than Durant or any other Brooklyn player traveling from halfcourt may have had. Horford jumped, snatched the ball with two hands, and before coming back down, calmly laid it in, giving Boston a 113-109 lead with 13.7 seconds remaining. It was the lead they wouldn’t relinquish, as they officially finished off the Nets in four games, 116-112.

The possession was at once the one that sealed the series and a microcosm of the series in its entirety; when all hung in the balance, both literally and figuratively, Al Horford was there to clean up the mess, to ensure that nothing would bounce Brooklyn’s way, and everything Boston’s. In a series that required nightly MVP-like offensive output from Jayson Tatum, All-Star defensive efforts from Smart, Brown, and the rest, and impact performances from bench contributors like Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard at every possible turn, it’s Horford who walks away its most important player — its MVP, for all intents and purposes. Without him, it’s a series that might have lasted a lot longer than four games. Without him, the Boston Celtics might be nowhere.

Thanks in part to Horford, the Celtics are the first team in the playoffs to advance to the second round, having handily defeated an opponent a decent group of national media members and fans alike assumed they’d fall to in six or seven games, given all the unknowns. What those predictors failed to consider were all of the knowns, the givens, the sure things that Boston had proven itself capable of over the course of the regular season’s final half. It’s been beaten to death — much like most of Boston’s opponents during the stretch — but it bears repeating: after the All-Star break, the Celtics boasted the NBA’s best record (17-5), point differential (12.4 and the only double-digit figure of its kind), offensive rating (122.6), and the third-best defensive rating (109.9). They were a juggernaut in practically every single sense of the word, and they continued those same trends through this first-round series, however brief it was.

You may pin most of the credit on Jayson Tatum’s lapel. I won’t fault you for that, though I hope you will grant me the same reprieve when I credit Horford with filling perhaps the most important in any series: that of the stabilizer. Horford never failed to be the bellwether of Boston’s stability throughout all four games, and at plenty of key points in each. When leading 6-2 early in the first quarter of Game 4 — possibly a novel hot start, but one with the potential to be sustained for four quarters — he caught a lofting pass from Tatum, turned to the hoop, and banked in a fadeaway hook to keep the good times rolling. Later, with Tatum fouled out, Horford remained a stout presence defensively and made the layup that all but pushed Boston ahead for good.

More broadly, Horford filled the shoes of the lone big man for the Celtics in this series. Despite the fact that Daniel Theis received starter’s minutes, he was more or less a non-factor in three of four games, the outlier being his 15-point, six-rebound (and five foul) performance in Game 2. Theis ended up scoring just 8.5 points and pulling down 6.5 rebounds in 22 minutes per game, respectable numbers, but well-short of game-altering.

And while Robert Williams ultimately ended up playing in the series’ final two games in Brooklyn, he (rightly) managed just 14.9 minutes per, and scored just 2.5 points while rebounding 3.5 misses per contest. Unlike Theis, Williams was a non-factor because he was being used tentatively, and needed to work his way back into the swing of things. The Celtics could have used both of them. Thanks to Horford — to the tune of 13 points and 7.5 rebounds in 32 minutes per game — they didn’t really need to.

Of course, no team can fall back on that sort of insurance full-time, not even these seemingly inhuman Boston Celtics. But with a player like Al Horford in the center of the huddle, they’re almost afforded the luxury, if not the insurance, of having a player who operates like a metronome. He determines the tempo, and he regularly steadies it.

When things may appear to be getting hairy, he also serves as a source of calmness, the kind of paternal presence that ensures you that breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth can right all wrongs. Cameras often catch him motioning his arms in a way that mimics someone trying to quiet a crowd, but what he’s actually doing is trying to soothe his younger teammate’s anxious energy. In situations talented youth might deem dire, Horford is the one who makes sure everyone remains grounded.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images

Last night, the cameras landed on him following his game-deciding putback, and instead of finding him pumping his fists in celebration or mean-mugging the crowd, they saw him beeline for Jaylen Brown. Moments before Horford’s layup, Brown had launched the almost-errant pass upcourt to Marcus Smart, the one that led to Smart’s missed layup after just making it beyond Kevin Durant’s 7-foot-5-inch wingspan and into Smart’s hands. If Durant tips that pass — or worse, intercepts it — who knows what the Nets create for themselves in the frenzy.

But he didn’t. That was the point Horford hoped to make when he rushed to Brown, embraced him, and patted him repeatedly on the head, reassuring him that he made a good play, that nothing went wrong, and that their Celtics were seconds from moving onto the next round. It fits Horford’s psyche perfectly: the mediator between panic and composure. It’s what he’s been ever since he first arrived in Boston back in 2016, and since he returned for another go this season.

Al Horford might not be the Celtic receiving MVP votes at the end of the season, but when you single out the most important word in that acronym — “valuable” — it’s hard to think of a player that honors its meaning more. I default to calling him a sage veteran because he keeps giving me reasons to. I wouldn’t be doing it if he didn’t fit the bill, despite the fact that he has been old(er) and wise for long before his stints with the Celtics. Yet on a team dominated and ultimately led by youthful talent, Horford remains a sage force; he’s arguably Boston’s most important presence, if not player overall. And he’ll continue to be exactly that for however long their postseason run continues.