Sports move quickly. Unless an athlete happens to be one of the best to ever do it, the phases of their career are likely to be brief and end without mercy. Today’s exciting prospect is tomorrow’s solid veteran is the next day’s forgettable also-ran. But there are times when that inevitable process can be reversed, if only for a game or two, and the player you hadn’t thought about in years suddenly becomes the one you can’t ignore.
From 2016–2019, Al Horford was a key piece in in the Boston Celtics’ playoff runs. He was the guy who anchored a defense that proved particularly adept at slowing down Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo, set perfect screens, and hit big shots when called upon. His three years in Boston were so successful that the Philadelphia 76ers were willing to sign him to a four-year, $109 million contract as he headed into his age-33 season. Horford’s first season in Philly was a disaster; he was a poor fit with both Embiid and Ben Simmons and was a non-factor from start to finish. That’s when time started to speed up on Horford. Over the course of one season he went from being an effective and sought-after player to a name attached to a burdensome contract. The Sixers dumped him on the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that currently exists for the sole purpose of collecting burdensome contracts, and it looked like Horford was doomed to spend the rest of his career toiling away in Oklahoma City’s graveyard.
It was only the availability of an even more distressed asset, Kemba Walker and his meaty contract, that brought Horford back to the land of the living. Last summer, the Celtics traded Walker, a first-round pick, and a second-round pick to Oklahoma City to bring Horford back. The 35-year-old was solid throughout this regular season, but nobody would have expected some of his best basketball to still be in front of him.
Which brings us to Monday night’s Game 4 between the Celtics and Bucks, in which Horford followed up his 22-point, 16-rebound performance in Game 3 with 30 points and eight rebounds. That’s the most points Horford has ever scored in a playoff game in his 15-year career, and 16 of those points came in the fourth quarter, a frame in which Horford went 6-of-6 from the field. The Celtics started that fourth quarter down 80-73, and have Horford to thank more than anyone else that they went on to win, 116-108.
It’s not just that Horford scored all those points and came up so big in the fourth quarter that made his night so memorable, though. It’s how he went about scoring all those points and coming up so big. At the start of the third quarter, Horford got hammered on by Antetokounmpo, which is no great shame given that Antetokounmpo is capable of overpowering and humiliating anyone in the league. But Horford didn’t accept getting mashed on meekly, and instead seemed to accept it as a challenge.
Because our world is governed by the laws of physics and biology, such an act from a 35-year-old man who has never been anyone’s idea of a high-flyer could only be interpreted in the moment as empty posturing. What kind of payback could Al Horford possibly be expected to dish out against a specimen like Antetokounmpo? Was he planning to pump-fake him to death? No! Wrong! What he planned to do was dunk on him!
“I didn’t make out what he said, but the way he looked at me didn’t sit well with me,” Horford told reporters after the game. “That got me going.”
Given the context and particulars, this was the most impressive game of Horford’s career. It feels somewhat crazy to say that about a guy who has been in the league for 15 years and played in dozens of playoff games, but it’s not every day that you get to save your team from falling into a 3-1 hole while also dunking on the the most physically dominant player in the league. That Horford did this now, when nobody would have expected it of him, makes the moment that much more powerful. Once a veteran player has the “bad contract” label forced upon them and are sent away to the hinterlands where only tanking teams live, it’s hard for them to find a path back to usefulness, let alone anything approaching stardom (just ask Carmelo Anthony). Who knows how long he’ll stay, but Horford has officially made his way back.