HANG TIME PLAYOFF HEADQUARTERS — Survival came in the form of a furious 6-foot-10, 245-pound package for the Atlanta Hawks. You might remember him. His name is Al Horford. He’d been missing from the scene for months, stuck on the Hawks’ bench in a suit, courtesy of a torn pectoral muscle that cost the All-Star center all but 11 regular season games.
Horford made up for lost time Tuesday night, though, scoring the final four points and saving the Hawks’ season with a last second defensive stop on Rajon Rondo to preserve his team’s 87-86 win over the Boston Celtics to push this series to a Game 6 Thursday night in Boston.
Rondo’s steal of a Josh Smith inbounds pass intended for Joe Johnson with 9.5 seconds to play was thwarted when Horford closed off all driving lanes on the sideline in front of the Hawks’ bench. Rondo lost his dribble and then flung a pass to Kevin Garnett that Smith batted out of bounds before laying his head on the scorer’s table, knowing full well that Horford had just saved him from being the Hawks’ playoff goat.
In his first full-game action in four months, Horford battled his way to 19 points, 11 rebounds, three assist, three steals and three blocks. It helped the Hawks stave off elimination and provided their fans a glimmer of hope that the home-court advantage Horford’s teammates earned in his absence might still be available for use by the weekend.
Scheduled to play no more than 25 minutes, the Hawks needed Horford for 41 in what turned out to be the defining game of their season.
“Al Horford was absolutely huge tonight,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “His ability to move around at times when we were forced to make switches on defense, and his foot speed enabled him to stay with the ball. Offensively, he gives us a presence down there, and he made some big shots for us tonight. I didn’t want to bring him back that early in the fourth, but it was a close game and you could feel the momentum shifting. He was a superman for us down the stretch.”
The Superman title, at least on this night and in this particular situation, seems appropriate. And since Orlando Magic center and resident Superman Dwight Howard isn’t using it right now, why not?
Horford’s late-game heroics weren’t available for the Hawks before he returned to action in that blowout Game 4 loss in Boston. He was ruled out of this series two days before it began.
Now he’s the reason the Hawks are still playing … down 3-2 and still facing elimination, but still playing.
“I was tired a little bit, but right now I feel fine,” Horford said afterwards. “Maybe it’s the adrenaline from the game and [today] it will be a different story, but right now I’m fine. At the end of the third quarter I asked coach if he could sit me down for four or five minutes so I can come back and leave it all out there. But I had to go back in earlier than that. I was picking my spots on when to be aggressive out there. I didn’t want to lose the series that way, so I didn’t want to let (Rajon) Rondo shoot a jumper over me.
“You’re fighting for your life out there. I wanted to bring energy to the team tonight. We needed to win this game.”