Al Horford Makes His Mark
And coaches around the NBA take notice.
by Tracy Weissenberg
Al Horford entered the NBA as a veteran. Since joining the Hawks in 2007, the team has made four consecutive Playoff appearances, including a 2008 statement seven-game series against the eventual champion Boston Celtics that announced the arrival of both the Hawks and Horford.
After receiving his fifth consecutive All-Star selection and second with teammate Horford, Hawks guard Joe Johnson said, “It means a lot, it goes to show how far we’ve come as a team, as an organization and I just think it’s been nothing but positive since Big Al’s got here.”
The Hawks are currently up 3-1 against the same team that swept them in last season’s conference semifinals. While many want the Hawks to play into the theme of retribution for last season’s loss, this year’s series doesn’t represent a change in mindset, but rather a change in matchups. The Hawks are continuing to have success against a team they defeated three of four times during the regular season.
While the Hawks have kept their core together, the Magic’s offseason moves and midseason trade saw the loss of key perimeter defenders Mickael Pietrus and Matt Barnes as well as backup center Marcin Gortat. Asked whether the trade provided more favorable matchups for Atlanta, Horford says, “Even before then, I think that when we played them the first time, before the trade and all that, I think that putting me at the four and putting a bigger guy at the five worked better for us.”
It is a common occurrence for visiting coaches to shower unprompted praise on Atlanta’s fourth-year center during pre and postgame media sessions.
Before the Celtics’ last regular season game against the Hawks, coach Doc Rivers said, “They’re an inverted transition team. You don’t see it very often where the bigs outrun the guards. Their bigs fly. Horford, I don’t know what motor he runs on, but it’s amazing. I love him, I love watching him. I was just telling someone, of all the All-Stars, coaching the All-Star team, he was hands down—it was’t even close—my favorite guy. Just the way he carries himself. He made a comment to me, ‘Coach, don’t worry about playing me, I just want to play one stint. This is about the stars.’ And I said, ‘You know, you’re one of those guys.’ Man he’s so unassuming—and you knew it was for real.”
Earlier in the season, Suns coach Alvin Gentry commented on Horford, saying “I don’t know if there’s a guy that works harder in the League than him. You know on the offensive end, the defensive end, rebounding.”
Asked for his response to the comments made by Rivers and Gentry, Horford says, “I think that coaches just see the way that I guess that I play and my work ethic out there and things like that and I think they just acknowledge it. I just try to go out there and just play the right way…It means a lot to me as a player that people notice what I’m about.”
Regarding his maturity coming into the League, the 6-10 center says, “I think that Florida really helped me prepare for this. Coach Donovan always talking to us and always trying to keep us focused and that’s what I took from playing at the University of Florida so I came in here and that was my mentality and my attitude.”
Besides enabling him to be NBA-ready as a rookie, Horford credits winning back-to-back championships at Florida with helping him understand what it takes for a team to get to the next level.
“I think what helped me the most with all that was I just knew what it took as a team to be in that position and that’s kind of what I wanted to bring in to this team, just that positive energy and working hard and playing team ball,” he says.
“What it takes to win a championship, I think that’s the mentality that I took [from college],” he says, “The mental approach you need to have and just it’s all about team.”
While Horford takes the experiences of playing and winning big games with him, he has a short memory when it comes to last season’s second round series. For him, the 2011 playoffs are a new chapter, and the Hawks are confident in their ability to move forward rather than rewind.
With the recognition Horford received from coaches during the regular season, I asked if he thinks there’s a chance of winning over Magic coach Stan Van Gundy.
“I’m not worried about that,” Horford laughed. “I’m worried about winning this series.”