BOSTON - Al Horford was a sophomore when he helped Florida to an NCAA championship in 2005, the first of consecutive championships for Horford's Gators. His NBA career has outlasted just about all of his teammates from that group - a banged-up Joakim Noah is barely clinging to an NBA career, David Lee is long gone and Corey Brewer joined his sixth NBA team (the Thunder) this March after he was waived by the Lakers.
But Horford, at age 31, is still here, and the Celtics are thankful for that. Facing Milwaukee in Game 7 of what has been a grueling first-round series, one in which the veteran has been as steady and consistent as any player on their team, Horford took a star turn, scoring 26 points with eight rebounds and guiding Boston to a 112-96 win and an improbable spot in the conference semifinals.
"He's been a stabilizing force since he walked in our locker room," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "And I think that's the best way to put it with Al, is he provides stability for all of us. Whenever you've lost other guys to injury, when people aren't available, when things aren't going your way, you know, he's likely been through it. He provides a very calming influence."
The Celtics benefited from the frenetic energy and big-shot making of Terry Rozier (26 points) on Saturday night, and from the solid, smart play of rookie forward Jayson Tatum (20 points). They used the hustle of Marcus Smart, and the bungling defense of the Bucks, to put together their best all-around effort since Game 2 - despite losing forward Jaylen Brown to a hamstring injury for the entire second half.
Through it all, Horford delivered the steady drumbeat of scoring in the paint and the calming influence of easy points in a series that has been such a struggle for the Boston offense. Horford took 17 shots on the night, and made 13 of them - 11 of those makes were in the paint, on 13 attempts.
Stevens made it a point to get things running through Horford inside from the start of the game. The Celtics scored a whopping 60 points in the paint, up from 47.2 in the first five games.
"I just think we simplified what we wanted to do offensively a little bit," Horford said. "Coach did a good job of doing that. We were more specific running a certain amount of sets - we weren't all over the place, we ran specific sets and just made it simple for the guys, for guys to make simple reads... I was able to get some closeout situations and take advantage of that."
Horford made the shot, too, that finished off the gasping corpse of the Bucks, with 1:20 to play in the game and the Bucks clinging to hope and a 12-point deficit. After some erratic dribbling from Rozier, Horford wound up with the ball as the shot clock wound down. With just 2.1 seconds showing, Horford launched an 18-footer over the arms of Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo, and it rattled in.
That marked a 14-point lead for Boston, and the effective end of the game. Horford celebrated after the shot, which marks a bit of a departure from his normal reserved approach.
"It's very satisfying," Horford said. "Milwaukee gave us all we can handle... It just felt good at that point that, we hung in there and we saw that they started to wear down. It's an emotional game. These are the kind of moments that you play for."
His fellow Celtics appreciated the show of emotion from Horford, but more than that, his even keel resonates with this bunch.
"Al's been great since he's been my teammate," Roizer said. "Since I've first seen him up close. Tonight, he did a great job at every time out keeping us poised. Not too happy, not too high, not too low. So he's just been a big help, the whole series, making sure us young guys stay in the moment."
Of course, Horford was not expecting so many young guys around when this season started a half-year ago. Gone are Kyrie Irving (knee), and Gordon Hayward, lost on the first night of the season to an ankle injury. Both were expected to be well-seasoned stars for Boston, handling the bulk of the scoring and allowing Horford to blend in as a defensive captain, playmaker and third option.
Instead, the four starters around Horford on Saturday were rookies Tatum and Semi Ojeleye, along with Brown and Rozier. How young a group is that? Well, go back to that first Florida championship in 2005, and Rozier was 11 years old. Ojeleye was 10. Brown was eight. Tatum was in first grade, seven years old.
Horford has seen those young teammates grow during this win over the Bucks. Indeed, he's helped them mature along the way.
"They're growing up," Horford said, "and this experience is unlike any other - being in the playoffs, the type of pressure, the type of intensity. I feel that this kind of experience will shape their careers in the NBA, because they see the level of commitment and the way that you have to play."
Things will get exponentially more difficult now, as Boston will have to play the Sixers, who breezed through their first-round series against Miami. Philadelphia is a better-coached team than Milwaukee, and has some of the best frontline talent in the East.
As Horford sees it, the learning will continue.
"It's going to make them better players," Horford said, "and it's all for the best."