Horford comes up big for Hawks


Horford comes up big for Hawks

ATLANTA Al Horford isn't 100-percent healthy, and that's the scary part of all this if you're the Boston Celtics.

Horford, who missed all but 11 games during the regular season with a pectoral injury, came up with a monster game on Tuesday to keep the Hawks' season alive for another night with an 87-86 win.

Appearing in his second straight game, Horford was back in the starting lineup and showed why he's considered one of the more promising young big men in the NBA.

He tallied 19 points and 11 rebounds, the first double-double of this playoff series by someone for the Hawks not named Josh Smith.

"Al Horford was absolutely huge tonight," said Hawks coach Larry Drew. "He was a superman for us down the stretch."

He was pretty special for most of the 41 minutes he was on the floor, actually.

"He's an All-Star," said Paul Pierce. "He definitely was huge; just having his presence out there tonight, on the inside with his defense and rebounding."

Like Ray Allen when he came back from his right ankle injury earlier in the series, the Hawks aren't sure how much Horford can handle just yet.

Judging by the minutes he played in Game 5 and his production, he's closer to All-Star Horford than one might expect.

And what makes Horford so talented, is that he finds ways to contribute in several areas.

Horford's scoring and rebounding took center stage on Tuesday, probably the most important play he made involved him not even touching the ball.

With the Celtics down 87-86, Rajon Rondo stole a Josh Smith pass with about 10 seconds to play. He quickly pushed the ball up court with Smith and Horford already back defensively.

Horford soon switched out to guard Rondo, who was unable to turn the corner and get to the basket. That led to Rondo losing control of the ball, and Smith deflecting it out of bounds as time expired.

"I didn't want to lose the series that way, so I didn't want to let Rondo shoot a jumper over me," Horford said. "You're fighting for your life out there."

And Horford was fighting to catch his breath at times, which isn't all that surprising when you consider he's had such a long lay-off from playing.

"I was tired a little bit," he admitted. "But right now I feel fine. Maybe it's the adrenaline from the game and (Wednesday) it will be a different story, but right now I'm fine."

And so are the Hawks; about as well as you can be following a win that puts them essentially back where they were at the start of business on Tuesday - facing playoff elimination.

Now that the game shifts back to Boston, the Celtics will have a building full of their own fans to cheer them on.

But they'll also have to continue to contend with Horford who will once again look to be a difference-maker for the Hawks.

"Al makes a big difference," Rondo said. "He can guard anybody on the court."

Blakely: This could be the start of something big for Celtics

Blakely: This could be the start of something big for Celtics

BOSTON -- Prior to this year, the Celtics hadn't been to the Eastern Conference finals since 2012. That trip served as a curtain call of sorts for the last great C's dynasty.
But this one, which ended with Cleveland's emphatic 135-102 Game 5 victory Thursday at TD Garden, is very different.
Rather than closing another chapter in the Celtics' longstanding legacy of greatness, it could serve as the beginning of a new narrative in the franchise's steady growth.
"For us to be in the Eastern Conference finals after the first year of this team really being together, adding additions like Al Horford and Gerald Green . . . I can go down the list of guys that we needed to learn to play with, and for us to talk about where we wanted to be and actually make it, it's a big-time accomplishment," said Avery Bradley.
Boston has been among the younger teams in the NBA, with the 31-year-old Green being the oldest player on the roster.
But what the Celtics lacked in experience, they made up for with great effort.
"The great thing about this is the experience," Bradley said. "We were able to go to the Eastern Conference finals, learned a lot about being in this position, and I feel like it's going to help us for next year."
But as we all know, the Celtics will look to strengthen themsevles this offseason, which means there's a very good chance they'll have a different look when they gather again in the fall.
How different is anyone's guess.
"It's difficult every year whenever you don't have guys back," said coach Brad Stevens. "I think you share a bond (over the course of a season)."
Stevens and this group have been together for eight months. Eight months of struggles, successes, frustrating defeats and euphoric victories that brought them to the conference finals, which is where their season came to an end.
But as disappointed as the players and coaches are inow, there's definite excitement about this franchise in the very near future.
Boston has the No. 1 overall pick in next month's draft, with all indications -- for now -- pointing to Washington's Markelle Fultz as their choice.
And their top first-round pick from a year ago, Jaylen Brown, seemed to steadily improve as the season progressed. It was one of the few times in his life where minutes weren't just handed to him, which he admits was a learning experience unlike anything he had ever had, yet he adjusted and played better as the year went along.

"I've had ups, I've had downs, I've had opportunities, I've had mistakes," said Brown. "So I've been learning and growing and improving all year and I'm going to continue growing and improving and prove people wrong, prove doubters wrong."
Having the season end the way it did has indeed left a bad taste in the mouths of many Celtics.
"I can use it as fuel," Brown said, adding: "I want to get back to the same place I'm at now."
Bradley, who was on the 2012 team that lost to the Miami Heat in the conference finals, knows the Celtics are going to do whatever they feel is necessary to give them the best chance at competing for a title.
"It's out of our control as players," Bradley said. "We had a great year together. If guys are here, if guys aren't, we all wish the best for each other.

"But I do feel this is a special group. We all gave our heart every single night, played as hard as we could. I respect all my teammates, and I really appreciated playing with all the guys I had a chance to play with this year; a special group."