MIAMI ( Associated Press) — The game was over. Like, finally, that Al Horford trip. He grabbed what would be the final rebound of the Eastern Conference finals, lobbed the ball high, ran to join his teammates in the merriment, then dropped to his knees to hit the ground.
Your time has come.
The oldest player, by six years, on the Boston Celtics roster will enjoy this trip to the NBA Finals in a way his teammates simply can’t. He will finally be in a title series, with the Celtics set to open against the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night, the day before his 36th birthday.
“No one deserves it more,” Boston guard Jaylen Brown said.
No player in NBA history has gone to more playoff games without reaching the finals than Horford; Sunday night’s 100-96 win at Miami to clinch the East title was his 141st postseason appearance. When the ball is thrown in San Francisco for the start of the Celtics-Warriors matchup, that dubious distinction will go to Paul Millsap, who has been to 130 playoff games and none in the finals.
Horford didn’t know what it would feel like to reach a final. Turns out it was better than he imagined.
“I just didn’t know how to act,” Horford said. “Just engrossed, excited. Lots of hard work. I’ve been part of a lot of great teams, a lot of great teammates and I’m very proud of this group… I’m really grateful to be in this position.”
The Dominican had a previous three-year stint in Boston, reaching the East finals twice, before signing with Philadelphia and later moving to Oklahoma City. He didn’t play much with the Thunder, and was traded last summer to Boston, a trade that worked out better than the Celtics expected.
His averages so far in these playoffs: 11.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists playing almost 37 minutes per game.
“Al doesn’t care about numbers,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “He cares about the wins and about this team.”
Horford isn’t Boston’s best asset. But make no mistake: he is the leader. In practices, timeouts, the locker room, wherever, his voice resonates.
Winning the East title was tough enough, having to break a No. 1 seed in Miami and win Game 7 on the road.
But that is only part of the story.
Horford was not in Game 6 on Friday night, when the Celtics had a chance to clinch the series at home, and for understandable reasons. His grandfather had died the day before, though his family members urged Horford to keep playing.
There was sorrow. There was joy. The last few days have been an emotional pendulum for Horford.
But perhaps it was fitting that the ticket to the NBA Finals came to him in Miami, given that he played college in Florida and is a hero in his native Dominican Republic, where many people have become Celtics fans again thanks to to the.
However, before long he was already thinking about the future. The celebration in Miami had to end. A new challenge, the greatest for a basketball player, that of an NBA title, awaits him.