BOSTON – Heading into the Boston Celtics’ Thursday night matchup with the Golden State Warriors, media narratives were swirling. Golden State took down the Celtics in the 2022 NBA Finals, and in their first matchup of the season - a December 10 game in San Francisco - they punked Boston on national television, earning a 123-107 victory.
However, according to the Celtics’ resident OG Al Horford, the narratives didn’t mean much.
“I personally, I’m not really looking at anything that people are putting [out there]. No offense,” Horford explained.
Horford led the Celtics in a hard-fought 121-118 win over the Warriors on Thursday, filling in all the holes left by poor shooting performances from Boston’s stars. The big man ended the night with 20 points, 10 rebounds, and three emphatic blocks on 8-of-13 from the field and 2-of-5 from distance.
And while he may ignore the hoopla, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t looking forward to taking on the Warriors. At the tail end of his statement about dismissing the outside noise, he admitted that he wanted this one. Badly.
“My biggest thing is - yeah, it’s a big game,” Horford said. “I wanted to win. I wanted to win really bad. It’s just one regular season game, but yeah.”
In Boston’s first showdown with the reigning champs this season, Horford was unavailable. Blake Griffin got the start in his place, and the Warriors, led by Stephen Curry’s and Klay Thompson’s 66 combined points, were too much for the Celtics to handle.
This time around, Horford was sure to make his impact felt. His rebounding, post-scoring, and clutch shot-making were crucial, but the intensity he brought was needed most of all.
For the majority of the contest, the Celtics were flat. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown struggled with their shots, turnovers were running wild, and Boston was missing layups left and right. But it seemed as though each time the Celtics were on their last breath, Horford was there to deliver a spark.
“I just thought he brought a different type of physicality and mindset to the game…,” head coach Joe Mazzulla stated. “I thought he helped us get going by having a good start, and we needed that tonight. He was big.”
Horford’s night was highlighted by a few key moments throughout the game.
In the first quarter, it was his dominant play on the block. When the Celtics were failing to generate any sort of consistent offense, Horford was there. Golden State rolled out a starting lineup with Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green in the frontcourt, and the Celtics veteran took advantage. In the first six minutes alone, he had eight points and five boards.
If that wasn’t enough early-game heroics, he also supplied a forceful chasedown block on Jordan Poole. Boston gave the ball away, and as the last man back on defense, Horford stopped a one-man fastbreak. He tacked on two more emphatic blocks throughout the course of the evening.
But perhaps the most important moments of Horford’s night came at the end of regulation and in overtime. With roughly 1:30 left in the fourth quarter, Boston was finishing off an impressive comeback and was down 104-100. Tatum drove to the paint, drew multiple Warriors defenders, and kicked the ball out to Horford in the corner. He was 0-for-3 from deep before that attempt.
Bang. One-point game.
And then, with just over two minutes to go in overtime and the Celtics up by one, he did it again. This time, it was Brown who made the move to the hoop, collapsed the defense, and hit Horford in the same corner. Again, money.
Big play after big play after big play for Horford. It was enough for Tatum to question the 36-year-old’s actual age.
“I joked with Al. He came out and looked like he was 25 today,” Tatum said. “Two days off. I said, ‘you need more two days in a row.’ He came out and set the tone. He really did. And we all kind of followed behind that for the rest of the night. Al was big for us the whole game, hit the big three late. Just the way he started kind of set the tone for us for the rest of the game.”
Horford, who has sat out back-to-backs all season long and was slated to take on a smaller workload heading into the season, but is playing 30.7 minutes per contest this year - the most he’s played since his lone All-Star season in Boston (2017-18).
Against Golden State, he logged 37:15, his third-highest total of the season, and was the most important piece in a huge Celtics victory. And at the end of the night, he still found a way to credit the TD Garden crowd.
“I think, in the Garden tonight, you could feel that energy,” Horford said. “And for me, it was important from the beginning that I came out and set the tone for our group. And I feel like I did that early on… We did a good job of staying the course and feeding off that energy from the crowd.”