Hawks' calming force Horford comes up big

ATLANTA -- Al Horford was nowhere near the play, miles from where Dennis Schroder held the Atlanta Hawks' delicate postseason fortunes in his hands.

"I was supposed to set a screen for Kyle [Korver], which I did," Horford said. "We put our trust in Dennis."

Trusted or not, Schroder was claiming the final shot for himself with the Hawks trailing the Washington Wizards by a point with 8.3 seconds remaining. That back screen from Horford could've left Korver with a double lot to himself, and Paul Millsap could've slipped down the lane untouched after screening for Schroder, and the 21-year-old backup point guard was still going to zip to the hole without a thought. Schroder said as much after the game: "I would do it a hundred times more."

John Wall swatted away Schroder's layup attempt from the right side with about five seconds left, and that's when Horford teleported himself from the outskirts of the action to become a central character.

"[Schroder] had a great drive, and then when I just saw the ball go up, I just ran in there," Horford said. "It was just a hustle play, making a winning play. I just got the ball. My first instinct was just to put it in the basket."

Humility is one of Horford's signature attributes, which is why describing the sequence as "just a hustle play" is a disservice to storytelling. A more detailed account of what happened would specify that at the time Wall's block hurtles off the glass, seven other players on the floor were closer to the ball than Horford. Only Korver and Bradley Beal -- surgically attached to him in the far corner as he has been all series -- had more distance between themselves and the basket.

Yet it was Horford who sprinted, attacked and then soared past Nene to corral the ball in midair. When Horford landed, he gathered the ball with both hands, sprang modestly, then dropped it through the net with his right. Atlanta 82, Washington 81, which would hold as the final score as the Hawks take a 3-2 series lead to Washington for Game 6 on Friday night.

"Great instincts," Millsap said. "He was on the back side setting the screen for Kyle. For him to go and get to the basket like that and be the one to make the play -- that was great instincts and great savvy."

Instincts might be Horford's greatest gift as a ballplayer. In this instance, those instincts were applied in chaos -- a quick impulse in a lightning storm. But for the rest of the night, and throughout the Hawks' improbable, historic run this season, Horford's intuition guided the team on both ends of the floor.

"Al has been the cornerstone for us, for the Hawks, for a bunch of years," Korver said. "It wasn't just that play, though. Al played an amazing game. He had huge blocked shots. He had that big corner 3. His ability to step out and be a threat with that 15- to 17-footer -- he's one of the best in the NBA, maybe in the history of the NBA doing that. He's such a threat. He's shown time and time again that he comes up big in clutch situations -- on different levels, not just NBA, but in college he won those championships [at Florida]. He's a great all-around player."

For one, Horford anchored a Hawks defense in Game 5 that strangled the Wizards, who managed only 81 points in 98 possessions -- far and away the Hawks' most efficient defensive performance of the postseason. It didn't happen by accident, and the adjustments the Hawks made schematically placed a great deal of pressure on Horford. As a guiding principle, the Hawks generally send multiple bodies to the paint, even at the expense of leaving shooters open on the weak-side perimeter.

But after getting burned time and again this postseason from long range, the Hawks switched up their scheme: They'd shift more selectively, with perimeter defenders staying closer to home on shooters. By virtue of doing so, the Hawks put the onus on Horford to hold down the middle without the usual help -- and he handled it masterfully. Behind the Wizards' pick-and-rolls, Horford played center field like Willie Mays. Against the Wizards' big men, Horford was a shot-blocking menace, singlehandedly shutting down any hopes of a Washington post attack. While zoning up the weak side, he never dropped his arms, and when it was time to help, he pounced.

The Wizards finished the night 4-for-17 from beyond the arc. Credit the Hawks' perimeter defenders for their vigilance, but the Hawks don't execute that adjustment without Horford as the pillar. His 11 rebounds and five blocks -- along with his 23 points -- don't even begin to quantify what was one of the best individual defensive performances this postseason.

"He's a stabilizing force. That's not just how he plays. That's who he is. He's always calm and collected; thoughtful, yet intense." Kyle Korver on Horford

Plenty of NBA players have tactical instincts, but Horford brings another layer -- human instincts. His teammates and coaches speak about it at will, his presence as a stabilizing force for a team that doesn't have the luxury to rely on one-on-one play and doesn't have a hierarchy. Nobody on the Hawks is going to claim the mantle of Supreme Leader -- that's simply not how they conduct their business. In Atlanta, leadership is expressed through mutual respect.

"That's a great word for Al -- he's a stabilizing force," Korver said. "That's not just how he plays. That's who he is. He's always calm and collected; thoughtful, yet intense. Obviously on the basketball court. He is a steadying force and he's a consistent player. This was obviously a big moment for him."

By handing the ball to Schroder, a dynamic but often impetuous young lightning bug of a point guard, with less than six minutes to go and his team trailing by nine, coach Mike Budenholzer assumed a huge risk. But there was Horford to play tour guide, providing the big screens, dancing with Schroder in the pick-and-pop.

"He's a dangerous weapon," Schroder said. "Every time we play pick-and-roll, the big man has to decide whether he wants to stay with me or with Al because Al is a great midrange shooter and he's dangerous when attacking the basket. It's great. If the focus is on me, I'll pass it to him and he'll knock down the midrange jumper. If not, I'm going to go to the basket. So it's really nice to play the two-man game with Al."

Does Schroder melt during the 12 most crucial possessions of the Hawks' season if Horford isn't out there as the calming force? Maybe, maybe not. But it was impossible not to see Horford sketching the outline for Schroder during the 14-0 run that vaulted the Hawks ahead.

If Horford wanted to be The Guy, chances are he could be. He has tenure, three All-Star selections and the gravitas to pull it off. But Horford understands that the Hawks are a team that relies on group multitasking. They system on both ends of the floor demands it, and so does the locker room.

"He's a smart player and very unselfish," Millsap said. "As a teammate, you like being on the floor with a guy like that. These past two years I've gotten to know Al pretty well and I love playing with him, man."

The postseason is in its fourth week, and the Hawks still haven't recaptured their January form, which is unsettling. A two-point win on their home floor over a hobbled No. 5 seed doesn't reverse that trend. But the Hawks needed a moment that reminded them who they could be in spirit, if not in practice. And on Wednesday night, Horford gave that to them.