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Al Horford is heading to his first NBA Finals

“Nobody deserves it more than this guy.”

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Miami Heat
Al Horford celebrates following Boston’s Game 7 win.
Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

Moments after the final buzzer sounded, Al Horford fell to both knees and bent his head so low that he could have kissed the floor like Kevin Garnett in 2008 if he wanted to. He slammed the court twice and sported a massive grin as he rejoined his teammates to celebrate.

“I just didn’t know how to act,” Horford said with a chuckle. “I’m out there, just caught up, excited.”

This was the ultimate team triumph as the Celtics outlasted the Heat, 100-96, in Game 7 to advance to their first NBA Finals since 2010 – but it was a particularly gratifying and a full-circle moment for Horford. He had appeared in the most playoff games (140) without making a Finals entering Sunday night, and it was fitting that he helped the Celtics get over the hump while doing so on an individual level as well.

“Nobody deserves it more than this guy on my right,” Jaylen Brown said. “I’m proud to be able to share this moment with a veteran, a mentor, a brother, a guy like Al Horford.”

Five days before his 36th birthday, the 15-year veteran grabbed 14 rebounds and had the best plus-minus (plus-10) of any Celtics player. He played tenacious defense and was as reliable as ever in the clutch as Boston withstood several Heat flurries. The Celtics didn’t make it easy – they rarely do – but the winding path they took mirrored the trajectory of the late stages of Horford’s career.

Horford said last year at this time he was at his son’s kindergarten graduation. He was in Oklahoma City and he and the team had mutually agreed that he’d sit out the remainder of the regular season after appearing in just 29 games with the Thunder.

During this playoff run, he’s looked at photos from a year ago to remind himself where he was then and where he is now. When he struggled with the 76ers and Thunder, many figured his career was coming to a natural end. It was a fair assumption at the time, but it was far from accurate, as it turned out his best was yet to come.

Horford has always been a leader, but he’s taken it to another level this season. It’s far from a coincidence that Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart are playing their best basketball as Horford has re-entered the picture and played some of his best, too. Together, they helped one another find what was missing.

“It’s been a great journey,” Horford said. “A lot of battles. Obviously never been able to get (to the Finals), but had a lot of great teammates along the way. This group is special. I’m really happy to be sharing this moment with these guys.”

Horford said he’s incredibly grateful, particularly after a mentally taxing and difficult week. He lost his grandfather, José Reynoso Nùñez, on Thursday, and made it clear he’s had him in mind during this playoff run.

“My grandfather was somebody that I was extremely close with, somebody that I really care for,” Horford said. “All week, my mom, my family, just telling me to go out there and play. That’s something that he would have wanted me to do.”