Al Horford makes the most of second chance with Celtics

After a dysfunctional 2018-19 season in which Kyrie Irving wrecked the Boston Celtics with a second-round playoff exit and reneged on his promise to re-sign with the storied franchise, Al Horford Chosen to leave as a free agent from the Philadelphia 76ers.

After two seasons, the profligate veteran is back home in Boston, where the fledgling Celtics he left are gearing up to launch their own All-Star roster, and together they delivered a 14-season and 141-game postseason escape from Horford. Game, more than any other active player: his first NBA Finals appearance.

Horford dominated Sunday night’s Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat, and the three players he has led in his Boston career — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown And Marcus Smart — provided enough offense to survive a 100-96 series win.

“Nobody deserves it more than this guy on my right, man,” said Brown, who played alongside Horford for the first three seasons of his career and sat next to him on the podium after the race. “His energy, his demeanor, come every day to be a professional, take care of your body, be a leader, and I’m proud to be with a veteran, a mentor, a brother, like this The guy who shared this moment with Al Horford. He’s been great all season, really my entire career. I’m so excited to share this moment with someone like him.”

Horford, whose maternal grandfather died before Boston’s heartbreaking Game 6 loss, fell to his knees as emotions prevailed in his first Western Conference finals in four attempts. He bent down and called out a word to the hardwood of FTX Arena. “Yeah,” he repeated before his teammates helped him get up.

“My grandfather was someone I was very close to, someone I really cared about,” Horford said. “All week my mom, my family told me to hang out. That’s what he wanted me to do, keep trying, Stay focused and understand that he’s calm now.”

Horford became the largest free agent signing in Celtics history when he signed in 2016. His Atlanta Hawks had just beat Boston in the first-round series, but they were swept by LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the division semifinals, and he saw what the Celtics were building. Boston has Isaiah Thomas, Smart, a smorgasbord of hard work and the last vestiges of the 2008 championship Celtics — in exchange for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from the Brooklyn Nets of two high lottery picks.

Horford led the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals in 2017 and 2018, respectively, with the No. 3 picks Brown and Tatum in their rookie years. Boston traded Thomas for Irving and added Gordon Hayward between the two years, but season-ending injuries to both All-Stars left the Celtics with Brown and Tatum as their leading scorers Hand, lost the 2018 conference finals to teams other than LeBron’s Cavaliers in seven games.

“When you lose those series, it’s obviously painful and tough,” Tatum said. “But you never forget it. That’s what we all have in common. We’ve all been through those tough times and we remember what it was like.”

Horford has always been the consummate pro. He was mocked nationally for his four-straight playoff loss to LeBron, and locally, a Boston Sports Talk radio host dubbed him “Mean Al”, ignoring Horford’s contributions as center, he Allow the Celtics to be able to defend at all five positions and open up space on offense. They just don’t have the firepower to match LeBron’s greatness, at least not yet.

Boston Celtics big man Al Horford kisses the Eastern Conference trophy after beating the Miami Heat to advance to the NBA Finals. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

So when James leaves the East and Irving wrecks the Celtics, Horford faces another tough career decision between an incumbent team with a sub-championship cap and the next rising young player Decide. He selected Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the 76ers just to watch the growing trio of Tatum, Brown and Smart lead Boston back to the 2020 Eastern Conference finals in Lost to Miami in six games.

When Horford’s frontcourt partnership with Embiid failed in Philadelphia, the five-time All-Star was booed by Sixers fans and, worse, their front office. They traded him and a lightly protected first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a salary slump. The Thunder put Horford on the ice in pursuit of a high lottery pick, and his career came to an unceremonious end with no championship aspirations.

Only, here comes the Celtics, again needing him to lead a young crew that has been off track for a .500 season. Horford was available to anyone who could match his $27 million salary last summer, until Boston offered Kemba Walker and a first-round pick, which was eliminated by some analytics-driven basketball folks. Horford is as underrated as ever.

The Celtics have had a shaky start to the season, with first-year coach Imeudoka reminding them of the instability of every downturn. Horford laid the foundation for their defensive identity, trusting the offensive development of Tatum, Brown and Smart. While Udoka’s brutal and honest criticism is warranted, Boston needs Horford’s steady hand to balance the emotions of a young team still finding its way.

“It gave us a sense of security when he came back,” Smart said of Horford. “We got Al back there. He’s always going to make the right game on both ends of the floor, he’ll calm us down, he’ll show us what we’ve missed, he’ll help us learn the game more. We Thank you for everything he brings to this game – his mentality, his professionalism, that’s important to us, the way he goes to work every day. We respect that and try to incorporate it into our lives and our game.”

Their trust in each other drove a remarkable transformation. Horford was the eldest in the fraternity and formed the best team in basketball during the final four months of the regular season. Since the Celtics last reached the Finals in 2010, their defensive bond is as unbreakable as the league has seen, and rising stars are realizing their potential. Tatum was named to the All-NBA First Team, Smart was named Defensive Player of the Year, and Brown was voted for the All-NBA and Defensive Team.

Equally important to Boston’s success is that Horford is Horford again. Given the opportunity to reinvigorate his career with the lineup he helped boost, they elevate each other to heights no one could have imagined a year ago. They beat Kevin Durant’s Nets, they beat Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks, and yes, they beat Jimmy Butler’s Heat.

“I’ve been part of a lot of great teams and I’m proud of this team,” Horford said. “I have seen [Brown] Join an alliance, take steps, and level up.I have seen [Tatum], The same thing. I have seen Smart grow. It’s special to be with them and to be able to help them and be a part of it. I am grateful to be in this position. “

All that remains to be raised is the team’s 18th flag. Only the three-time champion Golden State Warriors hampered Horford’s Hall of Fame legacy and fully realized the potential of the lineup he coached.

“Every athlete’s dream is to get to the final stage and have a chance,” Smart said. “I’ve been here for four years in the Eastern Conference finals and have been sent home every year. It feels really good, it feels really good for Jason and Jaylen. We’ve been together the longest – even ale”

We rarely see second chances in sports or in life, but these Celtics are making the most of their opportunities.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Is there a tip? Send an email to rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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