Al Horford was born in the Dominican Republic – a place best known for producing baseball players as it pertains to professional sports. His desire to play basketball was influenced by his father, who played three seasons in the NBA. Fresh off two playoff series victories, Horford and the Atlanta Hawks are in the midst of a battle for basketball immortality.
At one point during the 2013-14 season, the Hawks descended to a level of atrocity that saw them lose 20-of-26 games. They somehow managed to still make the playoffs despite only winning 38 games, and much of this can be attributed to the ineptitude of the New York Knicks and the lack of viable competition in the Eastern Conference.
But the narrative surrounding the team this year pales in comparison to that of a season ago, as they’re just four wins away from their first trip to the Finals since the 1960-61 season when they were the St. Louis Hawks. A large degree of credit can be given to Horford, who missed all but 29 games last season with a torn right pectoral muscle. This season, he has come back and provided his team with excellent production, and his versatility meshes well with what coach Mike Budenholzer envisions for his team.
When Horford takes the floor in front of a sold-out home arena on Wednesday night, it’ll be the 13th game he has played this postseason, setting a new individual record. So far, he has averaged 15.6 points on 49 percent shooting, ranking third in both of these categories on the team. But no points were bigger than the last two at the end of Game 5 that catapulted Atlanta to a 3-2 lead in the series over the Washington Wizards.
After Paul Pierce nailed yet another huge three, in which he called “series” this time instead of “game,” Dennis Schroder’s driving layup didn’t fall for the Hawks, but Horford corralled the offensive rebound and laid it in to give his team an 82-81 victory. He finished the game with 23 points on 10-of-18 shooting, 11 rebounds, five blocks and two assists and no turnovers. He became the first player in franchise history to record at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in a playoff game.
In the Hawks’ three-point victory in Game 6 to close out the series, Horford scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds while dishing out four assists. His level of consistency is just what Atlanta needs to have any shot at beating Cleveland.
For a team that has prided themselves on ball movement, Horford has made some major contributions with his mid-range shooting ability. He forces opposing big men to come out and guard him on the perimeter, and it opens up the lane for penetration, whether it comes from him or his teammates. He can also hurt you in the post.
Horford’s plus-minus of +5.8 per game during the postseason is a clear indication that Atlanta is a better team when he’s on the floor. And if that’s not convincing enough, you can look back to how they fared last season when they were devoid of his presence.
With its eyes on the prize, Atlanta is looking to become just the 10th team to hold the Larry O’Brien Trophy since the 1979-80 season. They’re fully aware that they’ll need to ameliorate their struggles offensively, as they’ve only put up 99.8 points per game on 43 percent shooting, which is down from the 102.5 points per game on 46 percent shooting in the regular season. Cleveland isn’t known as a great defensive team, but they’ve been very good in the postseason and will provide a tough test.
The Hawks are also looking to continue playing astute defense that has allowed them to go on runs and get back into games. One thing that’ll be required for that is consistent production from their anchor in Horford. His defensive rating so far this postseason stands at 94.5, per NBA.com, which is the best mark of all the Hawks’ starters. Atlanta will continue to rely on him to be a staple on both ends, especially when it comes to keeping guys like Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson off the boards.
While the Hawks are the No. 1 seed, you get the feeling that they’re the underdog in this series. That’s usually what happens when one team has LeBron James and the other doesn’t. But Atlanta is looking to do it differently – without a superstar or a big name; without your prototypical “go-to” guy.
The Hawks pushed the No. 1-seeded Indiana Pacers to the brink of elimination in the first round of last year’s playoffs. At the time, many people surmised that this was just a breakdown on the part of the Pacers. But in retrospect, it seems like it was the foreshadowing of things to come, and now Atlanta is playing with a ton of confidence.
Sitting right in the thick of everything is Horford. If he can play at an elite level, maybe, just maybe, the Hawks will shock the world. Of the four teams remaining, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone outside of Atlanta who has the Hawks as the favorite. Cleveland has LeBron, the Warriors have the Splash Brothers and were the NBA’s best team, and if the Rockets are somehow able to beat Golden State after coming back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Clippers, people might gravitate toward that bandwagon.
But Al Horford might have something to say about it. Not with his words, but with his play on the court. Will that be able to translate into positive results? We’ll see. Everyone knows the Hawks have been deprived of success for far too long and that city is itching for greener pastures.