MIAMI – The game was over. So, finally, was Al Horford’s trip. He grabbed what would be the final rebound of the Eastern Conference finals, lobbed the ball skyward, ran to join his teammates in celebration, then dropped to his knees to hit the ground.
The oldest player, by six years, on the Boston Celtics roster will savor this trip to the NBA Finals in a way his teammates simply can’t. He will finally play in the title series, with the Celtics set to open the matchup against the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night, the day before Horford’s 36th birthday.
“No one deserves it more,” Boston guard Jaylen Brown said.
No one in NBA history has played more playoff games without reaching the finals than Horford; Sunday night’s 100-96 win at Miami to clinch the East title was his 141st postseason appearance. When the ball tips in San Francisco for the Celtics-Warriors kickoff, that dubious distinction becomes the possession of Paul Millsap; he has been to 130 playoff games, none in the finals.
Horford did not know what the moment would be like, reaching the final. Turns out it was better than he imagined.
“I just didn’t know how to act,” Horford said. “Simply up to date, excited. Lots of hard work. I’ve been a part of a lot of great teams, a lot of great teammates, and I’m very proud of this group. … I am really grateful to be in this position.”
Horford had a previous three-year stint in Boston, reaching the East finals twice, before signing with Philadelphia and eventually moving to Oklahoma City. He didn’t play much for the Thunder, and they traded him last summer back to Boston, a move that worked better than even the Celtics expected.
His averages so far in these playoffs: 11.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists playing almost 37 minutes per game.
“Al doesn’t care about numbers,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “He cares about the wins and about this team. When he came back, that gave us a sense of security. We’ve got Al there, he’ll always make the right play on both ends, he’ll calm us down, he’ll show us what we missed and he’ll help us learn the game even more.”
Horford isn’t Boston’s best player. But make no mistake: he is the leader. In practices, downtime, the locker room, wherever, his voice resonates.
“It’s unbelievable what he’s done all season,” said coach Ime Udoka. “As I mentioned, he came into training camp in great shape, proud, he wanted to go back to Boston. … Puts it all out there protecting big, small and everything in between. His leadership is evident”.
Winning the Eastern title was tough enough, going through a No. 1 seed like Miami and having to win a Game 7 on the road.
That told only part of the story.
Horford was not in Game 6 on Friday night, when Boston had a chance to clinch the series at home, and for understandable reasons. His grandfather had died the day before, though family members urged Horford to keep playing.
“My grandfather was someone very close to me, someone I really love,” Horford said. “All week my mom, my family were telling me to just go out and play. That’s something he would have wanted me to do, just continue and really try to stay focused and understand that he’s at peace now.”
There was pain. There was joy. The last few days have been an emotional pendulum for Horford.
But perhaps it was fitting that the ticket to the NBA Finals came to him in Miami, given that he played his college baseball in Florida and is a hero in his native Dominican Republic, where countless people have become Celtics fans again thanks to to the.
“We are here in Miami very close to the DR. Everybody is watching. The country was watching,” Horford said. “I know everyone was there. They were sending me photos, they were ready for this and we are enjoying this moment.”
Before long, however, he was already thinking about the future. The celebration in Miami had to end. A new challenge awaits you, the ultimate challenge for a basketball player, that of an NBA title.
“His energy, his demeanor, coming in every day, being a professional, taking care of his body, being a leader, I’m proud to be able to share this moment with a veteran, a mentor, a brother, a guy like Al Horford, man.” Brown said. “He’s been great all season, really my whole career. I am happy to be able to share this moment with someone like him.”
Melissa Galbraith is the World News reporter for Globe Live Media. She covers all the major events happening around the World. From Europe to Americas, from Asia to Antarctica, Melissa covers it all. Never miss another Major World Event by bookmarking her author page right here.