Chris Forsberg

How 38-year-old Al Horford is inspiring Celtics amid playoff run

Boston's oldest player continues to deliver in big moments.

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The Boston Celtics should not need any additional motivation in the quest for Banner 18. But if there’s ever a moment during the 2024 NBA Finals where an additional jolt of inspiration is needed, Boston players can simply look over at Al Horford.

Horford turns 38 on Monday. He is, by NBA standards, a dinosaur. And yet every time you look up, he’s hitting another clutch 3 or is at the center of a big defensive stand. Sometimes it feels like no one on the floor wants to win more than Horford.

It's obvious why: In a career decorated by winning, including two college national championships and more than two full seasons worth of NBA playoff appearances, the one thing that has evaded Horford is an NBA title. Now, he’s tantalizingly close to achieving that goal.

"I just feel very grateful to be in this opportunity. It’s very exciting for me,” Horford said. "We’ve just been consistent all year as a group. That’s a word that keeps coming up and it’s just the reality. Our group has been solid. We’re enjoying playing with each other on the court and trying to make the most of this opportunity. So for me, I’m just enjoying this season and trying to make the most of it and trying to do the best that I can of this opportunity.

"It’s not easy getting to this position. It’s only my second time being in a Finals, so I’m just very fortunate. Just very excited for the opportunity.”

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Let’s get the age stuff out of the way. At age 38, Horford is …

  • One of only two '80s babies on the Finals rosters. The other, 34-year-old Dallas forward Markieff Morris (9/2/1989), has not played in the postseason.
  • Two years older than Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla, who will turn 36 at month’s end.
  • Four years older than any other player on Boston’s roster (Jrue Holiday, 6/12/1990) and eight years older than the next closest after that (Derrick White). Horford was approaching his 18th birthday when rookie Jordan Walsh was born.

Horford recently crossed 40,000 total NBA minutes, including postseason play. He’s logged a total of 1,259 NBA games and 40,404 minutes entering the Finals. That includes 181 postseason appearances.

At an age when Horford should be downshifting, the Celtics keep asking more from him. With Kristaps Porzingis sidelined by a calf injury, Horford has started the last 10 games. He’s averaging 9.9 points and 7.3 rebounds over 30.4 minutes per game this postseason.

Al Horford reacts to becoming the third player in NBA history at his age to record 20+ points, 15+ rebounds, and 5+ assists. He also tallied 3 blocks and a steal in the win.

Even with Porzingis expected back on the court for the Finals, Horford will play a hefty role for Boston. And there is a deep appreciation for the zest that he still brings to the floor.

"I mean, you can't really put it into words,” Mazzulla said after Boston swept the Pacers. "I’ll try my best, but he's just a guy who is the best. I mean, his leadership, his poise, his intensity -- when he brings it to a different level, it's contagious.

"Inspiration — guys look up to him, he's just Al. I can’t put it into words. But I'm grateful that we have him and I'm really happy for him. Just the sacrifices that he's made over the course of his entire career to get another shot at this is big, and I'm really happy for him.”

Before the season, when Boston’s top six players huddled for an informal chat about roles during training camp, Horford stressed to the group that he would be OK shuffling to a reserve role despite starting 1,003 of his 1,013 regular-season games to that point.

In typical Horford fashion, when it’s noted that he set a tone of sacrifice in that moment -- one that has become a calling card for this Celtics team -- he downplays his part.

"I feel like we've made a bigger deal of it than what it was,” Horford told NBC Sports Boston. “Ultimately, I think we all understood what needed to happen and I believe that it's what's best for our group and for our team and we've seen the success with it. For me, It's just really making sure that I'm finding ways to impact winning in the game and I feel like I've been able to do that this year.”

But Horford’s willingness to step outside his comfort zone undeniably made it easier for others to do the same. Everyone was willing to sacrifice counting stats if it meant more wins.

"I think guys understand how much I care about winning, and since I've become a Celtic, that's all I've thought about,” said Horford. "I feel like it's who I am, right? … I think they saw that as being about sacrifice, but everybody has had to make those for all of this to work and for us to have this success this year.”

Still, it set a tone for this group.

"Al's been our leader this whole time I've been here,” Derrick White told NBC Sports Boston. “So credit to him to do something he's never done in his basketball life, or a lot of his NBA career.  We all just had to understand we're going to make sacrifices and it's all for the greater good.”

The entire Horford family is taking a moment to appreciate the journey this year. Three generations of Horfords were on the floor after the Celtics swept the Pacers, with Al’s father, Tito, beaming from the sidelines, while Al’s son, Ean, joined the team’s locker room celebration. It was Horford who kickstarted a brief beer-spraying celebration. The focus quickly shifted back to the Finals.

An NBA title would be the capstone of a Hall of Fame-worthy career for Horford. Would he ride off into the sunset in the aftermath? He’s under contract for $9.5 million next season and could easily still play a depth role on a team that should still have a championship-worthy core in place.

Those sort of decisions can wait. There’s more pressing matters ahead, not the least of which is Horford finding ways to help the Celtics corral the likes of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving.

What he’s doing at 38 isn’t normal. But it’s also not a surprise because of how hard Horford has worked to keep his body in shape and his ability to play like someone 10 years younger in key moments.

What Horford is doing is inspiring. And his teammates need to use him as that little extra bit of motivation to ensure he gets the championship ring he’s been chasing since many of them were in diapers.

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