Fact: For a six-year stretch in the early ’80s, the NBA used to give out an annual Comeback Player of the Year award.
It was eliminated after the 1985-86 season, in part because the top candidates weren’t just newly scarred players coming back from herniated disks and torn ACLs, but guys coming back from year-long suspensions under the league’s drug policy.
I guess I can see why they ditched it. The spirit of the thing wasn’t supposed to be Best Player Who We Think Kicked His Coke Habit.
But it’s too bad they haven’t brought the award back in the last few years, in this healthier-living, my-vice-is-fruit-smoothies version of the NBA. OK, maybe it’s not that innocent, but you get the gist.
An impressive, well-deserved comeback is always something worth saluting.
Al Horford would be an ideal candidate for such an honor after this season’s rejuvenating return to the Celtics, where he previously played his steady, savvy brand of basketball from 2016-19.
And in the smaller game-specific sense, it was Horford Saturday who was the fulcrum of a Celtics’ comeback in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Bucks that was impressive even as it fell a fraction of a second and a couple of points short of what they needed.
In a hard-fought matinee in Milwaukee in which Jayson Tatum’s vast powers abandoned him and others in the Celtics’ supporting cast struggled to knock down open shots in a 103-101 setback, Horford was their rock, delivering a superb all-around performance. He scored 22 points, grabbed 16 rebounds, and dished out a team-high 5 assists.
He also defended Bucks force-of-nature Giannis Antetokounmpo (42 points) as well as any earthling could be expected to do, especially since there’s apparently an unwritten rule that Giannis can only be called for one out of every dozen obvious charges. Heck, the way they’re calling it, it might even be written at this point.
Horford shot 9 of 16 from the field, including 4 of 7 from 3. The rest of the Celtics combined to go 23 of 69 from the field (33.3 percent) and 5 of 26 from 3-point territory (19.2 percent). They were like an Antoine Walker lowlight reel.
Along with Jaylen Brown (who started slowly but finished with 27 points) and Derrick White (an encouraging 14 points in 21 minutes), Horford hoisted up the Celtics over the final 12 minutes after the Bucks had taken an 80-67 lead in a dominating third quarter.
In the first minute of the fourth quarter, Horford blocked a Giannis shot, grabbed a rebound, and knocked down a 3-pointer to cut the Bucks lead to 80-72 and confirm that the Celtics weren’t about to go quietly.
He was right in the middle of everything the rest of the way as the Celtics chipped away at and briefly overcame what was once a 14-point Milwaukee lead. He drove for a layup (8:40 remaining, cutting the Bucks lead to 88-81); fed Tatum for a driving reverse layup (7:58, 90-83); grabbed an offensive rebound that led to a Brown bucket (6:29, 92-87); and scored 7 straight Celtics points on a 20-foot jumper, a 3, and a jump hook (the last bucket coming at 4:10, 97-95).
For all of the important plays that he made, though, it’s one that the clock would not allow him to make that will linger until Game 4 Monday night. The Celtics couldn’t catch, or create, a break in the minute. With the Celtics up a point, 100-99, with 50 seconds left, Grant Williams couldn’t collect an offensive rebound after Marcus Smart missed an open 3-pointer.
Then, with the Celtics down 103-100 and the final seconds ticking down, Smart appeared to be fouled by Jrue Holiday while shooting a three with 4.6 seconds left. The officials got it wrong — anyone familiar with Smart’s work knows he was teeing that up, right? — calling the crowd on the floor and giving Smart two shots. He made the first, deliberately missed the second, and tore down the rebound himself.
With seemingly every present Buck and maybe a couple from the past surrounding him too (could have sworn I saw Paul Mokeski among the trees), he missed the put back. Rob Williams was wild on a tip attempt, and Horford missed a tip from the other side of the hoop. . . before his second, from closer range, went in.
Tie game, and on to overtime? So close. So, so close. Goal no. Replay confirmed that the ball was still on Horford’s fingertips when time expired. Horford didn’t seem to need the replay to confirm it was too late. After he tipped it in, he didn’t react like a man who had just saved the day. He reacted like he knew time, by a fraction of a second, had not been on his side.
Still, the almosts and what-might-have-beens won’t detract from a resilient performance by the Celtics and their almost-36-year-old center, who insists on playing like he’s a decade younger.
Allow me one last awards-centric digression, if you would: Doesn’t Brad Stevens deserve Executive of the Year consideration for getting Horford, who was exiled from a bad basketball marriage in Philadelphia to Did-Not-Play, We’re-Tanking status with Oklahoma City last season, for Kemba Walker and his bad knees and crippling contract?
Imagine what this team would look like if that deal, the first Stevens made in his president of basketball operations role, had never come together. They would not be playing right now, that’s for sure.
Stevens has always appreciated what Horford brings. “His presence makes unselfish basketball contagious,” he once said.
Saturday, Horford’s presence aided — spearheaded, really — a Celtics charge from what could have felt like a lost cause.
No, there might not be a Comeback Player of the Year award anymore. But thank goodness Horford came back here this year.
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