NBA Finals

How Al Horford propelled the Celtics to winning time

Naveen Ganglani
How Al Horford propelled the Celtics to winning time

UPSET. Celtics center Al Horford controls the ball against Warriors forward Draymond Green.

Darren Yamashita/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

The Boston Celtics are the first team in finals history to win by more than 10 after entering the final quarter trailing by 10 or more points

MANILA, Philippines – The Boston Celtics scored a truly impressive victory by drawing first blood against the Golden State Warriors, 120-108, in the opener of the 2022 NBA Finals. 

After trailing by 15 in the third quarter, the Celtics, who are back in this series for the first time since 2010, went on a fourth-quarter blitz where they outscored Golden State, 40-16. 

The Cs are the first team in finals history to win by more than 10 after entering the final quarter trailing by 10 or more points, per Sportsradar. 

Aiming for their 18th NBA title, which would be the most for any team in league history, Boston capitalized on a 17-0 run from the 6:04 mark of the final period until 1:10 remained to silence a Chase Center crowd after victory seemed imminent for the home team.

The Celtics are now 8-2 on the road in the NBA playoffs. 

“The message at the start of the fourth was, ‘We’ve been here before.’ We know what it takes to overcome a deficit like that,” Eastern Conference Finals MVP Jayson Tatum said.

“I think that for us the key was Jaylen Brown, start of the fourth quarter, with the way he came out and played, with his energy and scoring, but also then Rob Williams gets a lob dunk. I just think that that was the start for us of something there,” Al Horford, 36, added.

After Brown got the ball rolling, Derrick White hit two contested triples, the second to tie the contest at 103. 

That’s when Horford took over.

Horford didn’t reach the NBA Finals from 2007 until 2022 despite multiple near opportunities. 

He made the most of his 33-minute debut by scoring 26 points and draining 9-of-12 shots, including 6 from downtown. He is the only player in the postseason to average at least 50% (57.5%) FG and 45% (46.3%) 3PT FG, according to Statmuse, while also converting 81.5% of his free throws.

His significant damage on Friday came during winning time.

This action begins with Kevon Looney recovering to White, who penetrates from the corner. Otto Porter Jr., originally guarding Horford, realizes White has the step, so he stays in the paint to contest a possible layup. Andrew Wiggins is in the high post, ready to get out to one of Payton Pritchard or Horford.

White dishes to Pritchard in the corner. Wiggins attempts to steal but is half a second late. He recovers in time to prevent a clean Pritchard three-attempt while Klay Thompon moves from the top to the right nail to contest Horford. 

As Pritchard dribbles left, Thompson begins his recovery process to Jaylen Brown, but the ball lands with Horford. 

Thompson’s length allows him to recover enough that he puts a hand on Al’s face, but Horford’s shot is too pure. 

With that, Boston took the lead for good.

This is a classic example of how defense can lead to offense. Horford is smart, putting both hands up and waving them to deter Draymond Green’s vision, as he’s attempting to pass – his first instinct.

Green is waiting for Looney to get switched on the smaller White, which would give him a clear path to the rim. When Green tries to dish him the ball, Horford’s hands deflect it, leading to a Celtics attack in transition.

Horford waits for everyone to get down then moderately jogs back – a wise move by the vet. All five Warriors are in the paint to prevent a possible rim attack, while Al stops behind the three-point line. 

Tatum shot horribly – 3-of-17 – but dished 13 assists, flashing his playmaking development. He kicks the ball back out to Horford, who’s wide open on top. Looney turns around and runs to contest, but it’s already too good a look for a shooter in rhythm.

“His playmaking has gotten better steadily. Tonight, it was just brilliant. Offensively he didn’t really get it going scoring-wise, but then he was finding guys. He was reading the defense. It just shows his growth,” Horford said of Tatum.

Here’s another example:

Smart sets a pick for Tatum then slips to the wing. The Warriors don’t switch, so Wiggins, their best perimeter defender, stays on Boston’s best offensive weapon. Green, who’s manning Horford, stays in the paint to contest Tatum in case he gets to the rim, which he does.

That small gap Green leaves by helping is all Horford needs to knock in a mid-range J from the short corner. Tatum could have also passed it to White, who was momentarily open because Jordan Poole, who was weirdly quiet in game one, tried a swipe at him.

With the lead growing to 8, doom felt prevalent for the Dubs, who squandered a golden opportunity to go up 1-0.

There’s an old saying that goes, “no rebounds, no rings.” It applies to both ends of the court.

On this play, Brown drives and has Steph Curry in his hip while Green, who leaves Horford, is in front of him. The drop-off pass would have been there, but Jaylen, who did finish with 24 points, 7 boards, and 5 assists, justifiably chooses to shoot. 

Notice the rebounding principles when it misses: while Green immediately goes up to retrieve the ball, Horford is eyeing its trajectory and raises his arms to catch it at the right time. Poole, who left Smart open in the weakside corner, tries to swipe the ball from behind and makes the fatal mistake of staying there too long.

That gives Smart enough time to catch the attention of Horford, who turns around and dishes the pass leading to the dagger three-ball.

It’s important to note that Boston went on their rally, which included limiting GSW to 16 points in the final quarter, by playing small. Whenever the 6-foot-6 Green is essentially the 5 for the Warriors (because we live in an era of position-less basketball), Boston will have a size advantage with either Horford or Robert Williams countering him.

“We wanted to go to a smaller unit, kind of get more aggressive on the ball. A lot of small-small. We did some pre-switching to keep the bigs out of the actions and took some time off the clock,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said.

With the game all but final, Golden State forces Tatum to pass the ball by having Wiggins and Poole pressure him near halfcourt. It doesn’t lead to a turnover as Smart catches it at the slot, giving Boston a 4-on-3 advantage.

Brown gets the leather in the corner and has an open jumper or lane to drive because Thompson goes out to impede Smart. Green commits to Brown in the paint, leaving Horford open for the cut from the top with only Curry left to defend in no man’s land between him and White, who’s also open in the left corner.

Steph attempts to tag him and recover to the corner but Green’s swipe leads to a foul on Horford, who also converts the lay-up against no pressure.

And that’s all she wrote.

The Eastern Champs immediately erased the homecourt advantage of their Western foes and earned the envious opportunity to possibly return home with a commanding 2-0 series lead.

The first game of a best-of-seven is typically the “feel-out” matchup for both teams to see what generically works in their gameplan schematics without each coach using their full bag of counters just yet. 

The Warriors have historically been great with Green as their defensive fulcrum when playing small, but the Celtics can counter that while maintaining offensive and defensive versatility because of Horford’s swiss army knife appeal. 

It might be just a championship that’s lacking on Horford’s resume to one day get him in the Basketball Hall of Fame. 

If Boston wins this series – now only three more triumphs away – tito (uncle) Al will wind up being a huge reason why. –