BOSTON -- At the half of Wednesday night’s Game 5 matchup, the Celtics were on high alert.
They had built a nice lead, but there was no doubt Washington was gearing up for a second-half comeback.
Al Horford sensed this and did what great leaders do.
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He spoke to his teammates, reminding them they were in good shape and that they needed to stay the course. If they did, he told them, they would walk out of the TD Garden with a 3-2 series lead.
“We were kind of falling apart at halftime and Al kept everyone together and told us that if we continue to play the same way and have a great third quarter, we can have a chance to win the game,” recalled Avery Bradley.
When Horford talks, his teammates listen.
Horford’s assessment was spot-on. The Celtics didn't let up and steadily pulled away for a 123-101 Game 5 victory that has them one victory away from the Eastern Conference finals.
And while Bradley’s career night (29 points) was certainly memorable -- not to mention vital to the win -- Horford’s halftime spiel might have been the most important moment for the Celts all night.
Because at this point in the playoffs, the mental aspect of playing is as important, if not more important, than the physical.
And that’s where Horford has excelled, not only in Boston but throughout most of his basketball career.
He’s a smart player who has been a problem for the Wizards most of this series. And he seems to be getting better, more impactful, the deeper it goes.
But that's no surprise. At the University of Florida, Horford was an integral part of a Gators squad that won back-to-back national titles. When the Hawks selected him with the third overall pick in the 2007 draft, little did they know that he would be the driving force behind a franchise that went to the playoffs in each of his nine seasons in Atlanta.
And now he's a key factor in the Celtics being on the verge of closing out the Wizards.
“Al brings so much to this team,” Bradley said. “He’s a veteran leader. He’s been in this position before and, oh man, I just really enjoyed playing with him; he slows the game down for everyone. To me, he’s almost like another Isaiah [Thomas] on the floor. He’s another point guard, another guy that can lead us and he’s very vocal.”
And in Game 5, Horford made his presence felt both on the floor and within the team’s locker room. Scoring, rebounding, defending, blocking shots, passing . . . Horford gave the Wizards the business in every sense of the word.
He had 19 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds with 3 blocked shots, the kind of playoff performance no Celtic has achieved since 1984.
Said Horford: “Yeah. I’m just trying to play the right way. When I’m getting my chance to shoot and if not I’m passing the ball, just playing the game.”
And leading; don’t forget about leading, Al.