Three hours before tip-off, three hours before the performance that would reaffirm what Al Horford means to this basketball team, the Hawks’ center had no idea if he would be able to play.
“I got to the arena around 5 o’clock, and I didn’t know if I was going to play,” Horford said in a corner of the locker room late Tuesday night. “It was pregame. I was real uncertain. I was feeling tight. I couldn’t get my full range of motion in my pec and my shoulder.”
The Hawks already were in relative crisis mode. They were down 3-1 in a playoff series that they had once led 1-0. They had flat-lined in Game 4 in Boston. Now Horford can’t play?
The only thing preventing this from devolving into slapstick would’ve been Alan Henderson walking through the door and saying, “Don’t worry guys, I got this” (before sneezing and throwing his back out again).
Fortunately, tragic comedy was averted. Horford climbed on to a table in the training room and a Hawks team massage therapist worked on him until all of the limbs functioned again, particularly the left arm and shoulder. Horford took it from there.
After a four-month absence for a torn pectoral and 20 minutes in Game 4 that left him feeling about 80, Horford reminded everybody what the Hawks have been missing. He played over 41 minutes (later acknowledging that he and coach Larry Drew “had an agreement it would be between 15 and 25″). He scored 17 points in the second half, finishing with a team-high 19 points. He totaled 11 rebounds, three blocked shots, three steals, three assists and harassed Boston’s best player, Rajon Rondo, down the stretch to secure the Hawks’ 87-86 win in Game 5 at Philips Arena.
Yeah. That about covers it.
“I know it takes a while for a person to get his timing back,” Josh Smith said later. “But Al looked like he didn’t lose a step. Everybody could see how important and vital he is to this ballclub.”
Horford made his first three shots in the second half (after a 1-for-5 first half) to give the Hawks a six-point lead (54-48). When Ray Allen tied the score at 83-83 with less than three minutes remaining, Horford scored the next two buckets (a dunk and a driving hook shot) to restore the lead. After a Smith turnover on an in-bounds pass, he chased Rondo down the court and forced him to the sideline, preventing a potential pass or game-winning shot.
“He was a superman for us down the stretch,” Drew said.
Somebody had to be. The heat was on Joe Johnson to have a playoff moment worthy of his pay stub. It didn’t happen. Smith was a mess for a half (he missed his first eight shots), though he finished strong (6-for-8) and helped in other areas (16 rebounds, six assists, defense).
But Game 6 on Thursday night doesn’t happen without Horford.
There is obvious uncertainty about the Hawks’ future. Smith has asked out. Johnson is whatever Johnson is. Jeff Teague has made significant strides at point guard, but sometimes he needs to be reminded what he’s capable of.
Horford is the only sure thing. Aside from the tangibles, he consistently brings attitude and passion, things the Hawks too often have lacked in big games.
He never expected to be playing so many minutes so soon, but said, “It’s just my competitiveness taking over. I know I’m not where I want to be [physically], so I just have to push through it. I want to win.”
Being out for so long was difficult. It was worse late in the season when Horford starred in a daily Hamlet act. He would feel good one day after a practice and proclaim he was ready for the playoffs. Then he would feel bad the next day and say he was out. Once, the prognosis changed in the same day.
“It was frustrating,” he said. “But when I did contact stuff, I kept feeling worse and worse.”
The turn came following a practice before Game 4 when he told Drew he felt ready.
He said felt “sluggish” at the outset Tuesday night.
“I was mad at myself because I wasn’t having the impact that I wanted,” he said.
That changed as the game wore on. He loosened up. The impact came and the Hawks extended their playoff lives.
Whether there is a Game 7 may depend on how Horford feels when he gets off the massage table in Boston on Thursday night.
By Jeff Schultz