MIAMI — Before the sport that would outline his profession, Al Horford was reminiscing. He’d had an awesome journey over time, made some deep playoff runs and located himself in Oklahoma City a 12 months in the past.

During his time with the rebuilding Thunder, Horford was recharging for yet another shot at greatness. This time final 12 months, all he had was time. He was ready for his second, cherishing the gorgeous components of his life as basketball needed to wait. A 12 months later, within the greatest second of his profession, he discovered himself trying again at that interval.

“On the phone, I would look at photos from a year ago, exactly what I was doing at the moment, and today my son actually graduated from kindergarten,” Horford mentioned. “So I remember that we had pictures for him, and I picked him up from school, and we had the cupcakes and we had all this stuff. So it’s like perspective for me, like I always look back and see where I was just day to day. I’m just very grateful to be in this position with these guys.”

Horford joined a staff with continuity and introduced a unique sense of stability. He turned an emblem of the ideas that after made the Celtics the league’s nice upstart challenge, that made them formidable relatively than gluttonous. As his staff has skilled unbelievable ebbs and flows this postseason, and particularly in probably the most erratic convention finals in current reminiscence, Horford confirmed why he’s the muse upon which the Celtics are constructed.

“It’s incredible what he’s done all season. Came into training camp in extremely great shape, chip on his shoulder, prideful, wanted to come back to Boston,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka mentioned. “For him to play 44 minutes at this stage of his career and lay it all out there guarding bigs, smalls and everything in between, his leadership goes without saying. A vocal guy but does a lot by example, and I think everybody kind of ties into him.”

Yet within the ultimate moments of a grueling marathon sequence that pushed him to his restrict, his destiny was staring him within the face, however it was now not in his arms. As Jimmy Butler rose for the go-ahead 3-pointer late within the fourth quarter Sunday, time stood nonetheless. Horford’s profession was flashing earlier than his eyes.

The 35-year-old had returned to the staff he as soon as carried to this identical second years in the past, searching for redemption. With Robert Williams III and Marcus Smart damage all through the postseason, he had in some way held collectively the league’s greatest protection. He had given every part he had left to lastly get to the place he’d labored towards for 15 years, understanding this is likely to be his greatest and final likelihood to get there.

The Celtics had finished nearly every part they might to lastly break via to the NBA Finals, then instantly they have been watching their destiny hanging within the arms of a participant who has been endlessly heroic for the reason that sequence reached the brink.

“When he shot that, I was like, ‘Man, what the hell?’” Jaylen Brown mentioned.

Horford didn’t know what to assume. He felt Butler was going for the shot, however he knew the Heat star might have simply faked it and pushed to the rim for one more three-point play. So he loaded up in his stance and did simply sufficient to make sure destiny lastly fell the Celtics’ method.

“I was like, ‘Let me contest the best way that I can.’ He got a good look at it, and it was nerve-racking. It was nerve-racking,” Horford mentioned. “He pulled up, and anything could have happened there.”

But it hit the rim, and Horford grabbed that rebound with 14 seconds left, then did it once more for the 14th time of the night when Max Strus missed the ultimate shot of the Eastern Conference finals. As Horford and the Celtics took a 100-96 wire-to-wire Game 7 victory on the street to lastly make the NBA Finals, he tossed the ball within the air as excessive as he might, collapsing to the ground in exhausted jubilation.

“Just didn’t know how to act. Just caught up, excited. A lot of hard work,” Horford mentioned. “I’ve been a part of a lot of great teams, a lot of great teammates, and I’m so proud of this group. These guys, I seen (Brown) come in the league, take steps, take levels. I seen (Jayson Tatum), the same thing. I seen Smart grow. For me, it’s just special to be with them and be able to help them and be a part of this. I’m really grateful to be in this position.”

Then these three gamers — who got here into the season the presumptive triumvirate that will outline this staff — got here out and instantly pointed to how honored they have been to do that with Horford.

“He’s selfless. Al (couldn’t) care less about the numbers; he cares about the wins and this team,” Smart mentioned. “When he came back, that gave us a sense of security. We got Al back there, he’s always going to make the right play on both ends. He’s going to calm us down. He’s going to show us what we missed, and he’s going to help us learn the game even more.”

Even after lacking Game 1 due to the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols and shedding his grandfather earlier this week, Horford was the defensive mastermind this staff wanted to outlive Butler and the Heat’s resurgence. In these moments late within the recreation when Miami was getting stops and the lead was shrinking, it was Horford who halted the run and chased down each rebound.

“That’s what we do. We did all that on purpose to make it interesting,” Brown mentioned jokingly. “But that’s us. We’ve been responding all year, all season to adversity. Today was the biggest test, not just of the year, but of our careers, to mentally come into a Game 7 away after losing on our home court, which was tough, and we got it done.”

As Horford held down the protection all through the sequence, Tatum and Brown tried to determine the Miami protection. They confronted several types of double-teams, zones and gambles within the passing lanes.

The Celtics spent a lot of this sequence making an attempt to determine their offensive tempo, alternating between pushing the tempo to attempt to catch Miami off-balance and operating down the clock to get the Heat to load up one aspect and hope a shooter could be simply open sufficient on the final second to get off a shot. In these moments, after they overthought issues, they typically let the Heat again in. When the Celtics simply performed with move and ran off defensive rebounds, they have been in full management.

Then as they received to crunch time, Brown and Tatum took management to create the type of late-game ball motion that had evaded them for therefore lengthy. In the center of the fourth quarter, Tatum began hitting sensible late-clock photographs to take care of the lead. Then, because the fourth quarter neared an in depth, he turned the playmaker he had been constructing towards all season.

Wearing a purple Kobe Bryant No. 24 armband, Tatum displayed decision-making much like his idol’s, drawing defenders the place he needed them and making cross-court passes to search out good photographs repeatedly.

“Today before I took my nap — I do it sometimes — I was watching some film and some moments from him and his career,” Tatum mentioned. “This is the biggest game of my career thus far, and I wanted to wear that armband to honor him and kind of share that moment in a way.”

Just as Bryant would find creases throughout the protection within the warmth of the second to search out one of the best move or shot, Tatum lured double-teams to 1 aspect of the ground to get Smart open and attacked gaps to move the ball to Grant Williams. Though the Celtics didn’t capitalize on virtually all the appears he created, he did what he needed to do. He performed the best way he may very well be pleased with, win or lose, and emulated one of the best virtues of his idol.

“I think in those moments, you don’t want to leave and feel like you could have done something more, so I think I came in with the mindset today that I was willing to do anything it took to win this game, however that looked,” Tatum mentioned. “I came into the game, (and) the only thing that mattered was winning. Y’all weren’t going to talk about how many points or how many shots I missed if we lost. It was all about, did you get it done or not?”

That’s one thing the Celtics needed to be taught from expertise, reaching the precipice of the finals 12 months after 12 months with nothing left to indicate however some development. Horford left for what he thought could be greener pastures, then ultimately discovered himself again on extra fertile soil. He discovered a staff able to take all the classes that failure had doled out over time and make change. It wasn’t fairly at first, however the Celtics confronted the type of adversity that buried them up to now and held sturdy.

Now, they enter the finals going through a staff that has spent practically a decade breaking via up to now. But after every part they’ve fought via these previous few months, they’re prepared.

“We were tested. We’ve been through a lot,” Brown mentioned. “We’ve learned a lot over the years, and now the stage is at its brightest. We’ve got to apply everything that we’ve learned into these moments.”

“To Jaylen’s point, winning is hard, and we’ve talked about this throughout the year,” Horford mentioned. “But even though we’ve played many years in the league and things like that, this team, this is us going through this process, figuring it out, understanding how to win with this team, with this group, and it’s experience after experience. These are battle-tested teams that we’ve been playing, and we continue to grow.”

When it seemed like Horford might need missed his likelihood a 12 months in the past, he by no means let go. When his teammates went down and it was on him to take care of this staff’s identification, he by no means relented. Now, because the Celtics attain the hardest stage, the place this group has by no means been earlier than towards the staff that’s grown accustomed to being there, Horford would be the one quietly main the best way.

(Photo: Issac Baldizon / NBAE through Getty Images)

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