On December 8, 2020, the Philadelphia 76ers traded Al Horford to the tanking Oklahoma City Thunder.
At the moment, the move was perceived as the beginning of the end for Horford’s NBA run. The 6’9 center was already 34 years old and looked rather unimpressive in his prior (and lone) season with the 76ers.
The Thunder predictably used Horford sparingly to give way to the development of their younger players and, more importantly, ensure that their goal of losing as many games as possible would not be compromised.
These kinds of situations typically do not end well for players who are on the downside of their career, but the Boston Celtics threw Horford a lifeline after a year spent languishing in Oklahoma City when they reacquired him for Kemba Walker and a pair of picks.
The five-time NBA All-Star was rejuvenated by the move and has repaid the Celtics handsomely for their belief in him. While his 10.2 points per game average during the regular season was his lowest mark since his rookie year in ‘07-’08, his 7.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 0.7 steals, and 1.3 blocks per game were all close to or even above his career norms.
The Celtics got exactly what they asked for with the returning Horford as they missed the stabilizing presence that he provided them on both ends of the court during his first stint with the team from 2016 to 2019. He has been a major X factor for them all season long–from their regular season turnaround to their grueling run through the first three rounds of these playoffs.
One year, five months, and 25 days after he was discarded to the hapless Thunder and seemingly hit rock bottom, the embattled Horford is set to finally make his NBA Finals debut on June 2 which is a day before his 36th birthday.
This marks the end of a historic run that saw him participate in a record 141 career playoff games over 13 postseasons before playing in a single NBA Finals game.
Now that he has finally made it to the title round, Horford is expected to continue providing Boston with all of the intangibles that have made him an indispensable part of their team.
His skillful passing and above average perimeter shooting make him one of the few players on their team who can grease the wheels of an offense that is prone to stagnation. On defense, he continues to move his feet well and remains one of the most switch-friendly big men in the league despite his advanced age.
With starting center Robert Williams still visibly hobbled by the knee injury that has caused him to miss seven out of the Celtics’ 18 postseason games so far, Horford will have to sustain his high level of play from the past few rounds to give them a chance versus the Golden State Warriors.
After missing Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals with COVID-19, Horford averaged 36.8 minutes a night in the next six games versus the Miami Heat, including 44 minutes in the do-or-die Game 7. Although he only scored five points, he impacted the game through several other ways in his typical fashion.
His nifty hand-offs and keen reading of the Miami defense kept their offense flowing while his elite instincts and undying effort were the backbone of their pesky team defense. The extent of his contributions can never be fully explained by a box score, but his supporting statistics of 14 rebounds, three assists, one steal, two blocks, and no turnovers, plus finishing with a team-high +/- of +10 in a four-point win, told a decent amount of the story.
It is rather poetic that it is Horford who is stitching this Boston team together given their history together. After all, it was his celebrated arrival in 2016 that helped elevate a promising young group into the number one seed in the Eastern Conference during his maiden Celtic campaign. They made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in each of his first two seasons with the team, albeit it was injuries that ultimately held them back from making it any further.
Almost six years after Horford was first signed, Boston has finally made it over the hump and they are now a mere four wins away from reclaiming the NBA title. Father Time has inevitably caught up with him and he is no longer the franchise center that they signed him to be, yet he continues to play an ever crucial role on this team on and off the floor.
For Horford, winning a title for Boston would mark the completion of a promise that was made more than half a decade ago. Though the path may not have been as linear as the Celtics would have wanted, the long and winding road that their leader’s redemption arc has taken will only make their potential victory sweeter.
Horford has gone through several battles over his career, but his maiden NBA Finals–a rare first-time experience for a veteran of his stature–promises to be the greatest one yet.