Al Horford shines against Bucks, Celtics now look toward 76ers

BOSTON -- His long work week finally complete, Al Horford elected to take the long way home.

Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens fetched Horford with 41.8 seconds remaining in Saturday's Game 7 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, but after a 26-point, 8-rebound performance that only confirmed the notion Horford was the MVP of the series, the big man showed a rare bit of emotion during a slow stroll back to the Boston bench.

With fans inside TD Garden serenading him with a standing ovation, Horford took in the moment before repeatedly pumping his right fist near midcourt. Finally, he gave one more gigantic arm swing in celebration of a gritty first-round victory.

A series of handshakes and hugs followed with teammates and coaches before Horford reached the end of the bench and, a wide smile on his face, turned to watch Boston's younger players close out a 112-96 triumph.

"It's an emotional game," said Horford. "These are the kind of moments that you play for. And, for me, that time there was just me enjoying, with the players and with the fans that were there, and it's just emotional. I'm happy that we came out on top."

A short while before his victory strut, Horford had given a similarly emphatic hand gesture to signify the series was over, this as Boston pushed its lead as high as 19 in the final quarter. Around that time, Boston fans chanted, "We want Philly!" while readying for the Eastern Conference semifinal series against Atlantic Division rival Philadelphia 76ers that tips here Monday.

Having vanquished the Greek Freak -- though Horford made sure to gush about the job rookie Semi Ojeleye did in helping to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo over the final three games of the series -- Horford now pivots to find a Process-trusting frontcourt of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid waiting for him.

Which is to say, things don't get any easier for Horford and his frontcourt brethren. For all the headaches Antetokounmpo presented -- and there were plenty -- Boston bigs had to otherwise worry only about Thon Maker and Tyler Zeller after John Henson didn't return after Game 2 of the series.

Horford often matched up on the versatile Simmons during the regular season and could routinely get that assignment again when not asked to close the lid on Embiid's offensive toolbox.

"[The Sixers] are playing great. They have a great team, a great coach," said Stevens. "I think everybody talks about Embiid and Simmons -- and rightfully so. But I think the skill that they have added to their team and their other young guys getting better and obviously [J.J.] Redick's presence have just opened everything up.

"They are a bear to play against. You can tell from the last series. I think Brett [Brown] is terrific, and on down the line, they are terrific."

Fortunately for Boston, Horford has been terrific and the stabilizing force for a team decimated by injuries. He's the only upright All-Star the Celtics have as Gordon Hayward recovers from a fractured ankle and Kyrie Irving mends from knee surgery.

"I think that the best way to phrase it with Al is he provides stability for all of us," said Stevens. "Whenever you have lost other guys to injury, when people aren't available when things aren't going your way, he has likely been through it, and he provides a very calming influence to the younger players."

Horford beams with pride when discussing Boston's younger players, including the leaps displayed by Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, or the late-series emergence of rookie Jayson Tatum.

The Celtics are going to need all of them against the 76ers.

But, maybe more than anything, they're going to need Horford to continue to be spectacular at both ends of the court.

"Al makes the right play, does the right thing. That's what a five-time All-Star is supposed to do," said Jaylen Brown. "[Horford] continues to play the game the right way, and when times get tough, we lean on him a little bit. And tonight, Game 7, biggest game of the year, he showed out."

Among the 26 high-volume offensive players with at least 100 postseason possessions finished, Horford ranks fourth in at 1.124 points per play, per Synergy Sports data. He's one spot behind Anthony Davis (1.133) and one spot ahead of LeBron James (1.12). Decent company.

The knock on Horford has always been that he lacks offensive aggressiveness for a max-salary player. Horford's first instinct will always be to pass first, but he showed Saturday he's capable of being ultra-assertive in a must-win game. While Antetokounmpo struggled to consistently find good looks, Horford muscled his way around the basket. Only four of his 17 shot attempts came outside the painted area, and Horford was 11-of-13 on the paint attempts for a career postseason-best 22 paint points.

Overall, Horford made 13 of 17 field goals for a Boston team that shot 53.6 percent from the field in Game 7.

Horford seemed to relish the accomplishment of beating a scrappy Bucks team despite all the youth on Boston's roster. He's excited about the more distant future when his All-Star teammates will be back, but he's also excited about the right now -- which starts Monday against Philadelphia.

"This experience is unlike any other," said Horford. "Being in the playoffs, the type of pressure and intensity, this type of experience will shape [Boston's younger players'] careers in the NBA because they see the level of commitment and the way that you have to play. It's going to make them better players.

"It's all for the best for our group."