Al Horford and Celtics he mentored making most of second chance at first NBA title

Following a dysfunctional 2018-19 season that ended with Kyrie Irving sabotaging the Boston Celtics in a second-round playoff exit and reneging on his commitment to re-sign with the storied franchise, Al Horford chose the security of a more lucrative $109 million offer from the Philadelphia 76ers to leave in free agency.

Two seasons later, the prodigal veteran found his way home to Boston, where the fledgling Celtics he left were preparing to spread their own All-Star wings, and together they delivered what had escaped Horford for 14 seasons and 141 playoff games, more than any other active player: his first NBA Finals appearance.

Horford anchored a dominant defensive effort against the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday night, and the three players whose careers he has shepherded in Boston — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart — provided enough offense to survive a 100-96 series-clinching victory.

"Nobody deserves it more than this guy on my right right here, man," said Brown, who spent the first three seasons of his career playing alongside Horford and sat beside him on the postgame podium. "His energy, his demeanor, coming in every day, being a professional, taking care of his body, being a leader, I'm proud to be able to share this moment with a veteran, a mentor, a brother, a guy like Al Horford. He's been great all season, really my whole career. I'm happy to be able to share this moment with somebody like him."

Horford, whose maternal grandfather died before Boston's heartbreaking Game 6 loss, fell to his knees as the emotions hit on his first conference finals win in four tries. He hunched over and screamed a single word into the hardwood of FTX Arena. "Yes," he said repeatedly, before teammates helped him to his feet.

"My grandfather was somebody I was extremely close with, somebody I really care for," said Horford, "and all week my mom, my family told me to just go out there and play. That's something that he would have wanted me to do, to just continue on and try and stay focused and understand that he's at peace now."

Horford became the biggest free-agent signing in Celtics history when he signed in 2016. His Atlanta Hawks had just beaten Boston in a first-round series, but they were swept by LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference semifinals, and he saw what the Celtics were building. Boston had Isaiah Thomas, Smart, a hodgepodge of hard workers and the last vestige of the 2008 championship Celtics — two high lottery picks obtained from the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

Horford led the Celtics to the East finals in 2017 and 2018, respectively the rookie years for No. 3 overall picks Brown and Tatum. Boston had traded Thomas for Irving and added Gordon Hayward between those two years, but season-ending injuries to both All-Stars left the Celtics with Brown and Tatum as their leading scorers in a seven-game loss to who else but LeBron's Cavs in the 2018 conference finals.

"When you lose those series, obviously it hurts and it's tough," said Tatum. "But you never forget it. That's what we all have in common. We've all been through those tough times, and we remember how that felt."

All the while, Horford was the consummate professional. He was ridiculed nationally for losing to LeBron in four straight playoffs and locally, where a Boston sports talk radio host nicknamed him "Average Al," ignoring Horford's contributions as a center who allows the Celtics to defend and space the floor offensively from all five positions. They just didn't have the firepower around him to match LeBron's greatness, at least not yet.

So, when James left the East, and Irving undermined the Celtics, Horford faced another difficult career decision between an incumbent team with a sub-championship ceiling and the next young roster on the rise. He chose Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the Sixers, only to watch the evolving trio of Tatum, Brown and Smart lead Boston back to the 2020 Eastern Conference finals, where they lost to Miami in six games.