Horford leads Hawks over Celtics in first start

ATLANTA — Al Horford wasn’t feeling any pain. Maybe

it was the adrenaline. Or possibly he was numb. Most likely he was still in


Somehow, some way, the young Atlanta Hawks center shrugged off the rustiness

and steadied his legs and found the breath to grind and battle the Boston

Celtics for 41 minutes.

And the Hawks needed all of Horford’s seconds and every one of his 19 points,

11 rebounds, three blocks, three assists and three steals to get an 87-86

victory on Tuesday night and force Game 6 in this first-round series, which the

Celtics lead 3-2 heading back to Boston on Thursday.

“Al Horford was terrific,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said.

Indeed he was, even if his lengthy time on the court seemed to surprise even

himself. The Hawks needed a jolt, and they received it in the form of a massive

dose of Horford.

“Al Horford was absolutely huge,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said.

“His ability to move around at times when we were forced to make switches

on defense, and his foot speed enabled him to stay with the ball. He was a

superman for us down the stretch.”

If Horford seemed sluggish at first, it’s easy to understand why. This was only

his second game since returning from a torn left pectoral muscle suffered on

Jan. 11, and it showed what the Hawks had missed practically all season without

their All-Star center.

The injury filled his winter with discomfort. Surgery was needed to repair the

tear. That led to rehab and sitting and watching his teammates finish strong

and make the playoffs.

Horford then gave mixed signals before the series began, going back and forth

on whether he was ready to return before deciding he was healthy enough to

play. Even then, he sat the first three games, finally returning in Game 4.

Horford saw action for the first time in nearly four months in the blowout

loss, contributing 12 points and five rebounds in 20 minutes.

He wasn’t sure what to expect on Tuesday, but thought he and Drew had an

agreement that he would play only 15-25 minutes. They obviously didn’t shake on


Horford not only started, he played 20 minutes by halftime. His stats were

lackluster at that point, with only two points and six rebounds, but the score

was tied.

When the third quarter began, Horford started scoring. He hit a pair of jumpers

within the first three minutes, and his layup with 7:21 to go in the quarter

started a 14-6 Hawks run that made the score 66-54.

“In the second half, I was able to get going,” Horford said.

“The guys found me and I was able to hit a couple of jumpers and that got

my confidence going again. After that, I felt pretty good.”

The minutes and fast pace took their toll and Horford went to the bench at the

start of the fourth. He sat for a few minutes before returning to the court.

The short break was all he needed.

Horford gave Atlanta the lead, 75-74, with a 16-foot jumper with 6:55 to play.

His play the rest of the way ensured the Hawks would never trail again. And

when the Celtics did manage to tie the score at 83, his dunk off a pass from

Jeff Teague gave the Hawks the lead for good.

For good measure Horford scored Atlanta’s last basket, a driving hybrid hook

shot for a four-point advantage with 1:34 left.

But perhaps his best trick came on defense, with the Hawks needing him one last


After Boston’s Rajon Rondo stole the ball with nine seconds to play and the

Hawks leading by a point, Horford was there to cut off Rondo’s path to the

basket. It forced Rondo to lose his balance and attempt a bad pass, which was

deflected by the Hawks’ Josh Smith as the final second ticked off the clock.

“I didn’t want to lose the series that way, so I didn’t want to let Rondo

shoot a jumper over me,” Horford said. “You’re fighting for your life

out there. I wanted to bring energy to the team. We needed to win this


With Horford on the court, the Hawks are a different team. They started Game 5

with the lineup they thought they’d have all season. In reality, it was the

first time that Horford, Smith, Teague, Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams were in

the starting lineup since Jan. 6.

“This is the team that they thought they were going to start the season

with,” Rivers said. “They now have it, and now we have to deal with


And especially with Horford.