Horford a champ at last: ‘Nobody deserved it more’

NBA

BOSTON — After playing in more playoff games than any other player in league history before winning his first NBA championship, Al Horford flashbacked eight years ago to his first free agency meeting with the Boston Celtics as he stood on stage in the middle of TD Garden and confetti fluttered through the air.

“Man, I’ll never forget what Danny Ainge told me in that meeting,” Horford, 38, said of the Celtics’ former president of basketball operations. “He said, ‘You can win championships in many places, but there’s nothing like winning in Boston. Nothing like winning as a Celtic.'”

When Celtics coach Joe Mazzula — who is three years younger than the 17-year veteran — subbed Horford out of Game 5 with 2:02 remaining in the fourth quarter and Boston well on its way to a 106-88 victory over the Dallas Mavericks, the crowd let the forward hear it with a booming ovation.

“Nobody deserved it more than Al,” said Jaylen Brown, the Finals MVP. “He’s been a great not just leader on the court but off the court as well. … It’s been an honor to be by his side. And Al Horford is a real-life legend and hero. It’s been great to be his teammate.”

In his 186th career postseason game with three different teams in the Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston, Horford posted 9 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals — one of which came by diving to the floor to corral the ball and pitch it ahead to Brown for an easy score to put the Celtics up 54-39 late in the second quarter.

Gary Payton previously held the mark, playing 152 postseason games before winning it all with the Miami Heat. Karl Malone holds the record for most postseason games without a title (193).

Horford’s decision to sign with Boston in 2016 coincided with the drafting of Brown and came just before the Celtics brought in Jayson Tatum in 2017, ushering a string of conference finals appearances and two Finals berths.

With Kristaps Porzingis sidelined with a calf injury for most of the postseason, Horford’s impact was immense, scoring 22 points with 15 rebounds and 5 assists in a close-out win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round and putting up 23 points, 5 rebounds and 3 blocks in a Game 3 win over the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals to put Boston in position to sweep.

“We leaned on him so much,” Brown said. “Probably too much for his age and where he’s at. He just delivered. So consistent, so disciplined with his body. Never complains, you know what I mean. The only thing he does is add to winning.”

Horford, who was born in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, celebrated the aftermath of the title with his daughter in his arms as she held a Dominican flag. He is the first Dominican-born player to win an NBA championship.

“Hell of a career,” Celtics forward Derrick White said. “So underrated career. Just does everything for us. Doesn’t ask for anything. I’m so happy for him, and I’m glad I could be a part of it. Just an amazing career, and this is just another chapter of it.”

Horford, who is under contract next season with Boston for $9.5 million, addressed how much longer he will consider playing after practice Sunday.

“For me, I never really put a timeframe on it,” Horford told ESPN. “I want to make sure that I feel healthy, that I’m enjoying what I’m doing and for me, thankfully, I have my wife’s support and my family’s. That’s a big deal to me. … I feel like I’ve been asked this for a few years now and I feel good, I want to keep playing. Why not keep going? I don’t want to limit myself.”

From the sounds of it, Horford sticking around would sit just fine with the Celtics.

“Knowing the type of person that Al is, knowing the leader that he is, even off the court, the father that he is, just the all-around great person and great human,” Celtics guard Jrue Holiday said, “I’d run through a brick wall for him.”

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