Posted May 1 2010 6:09PM
ATLANTA -- These are the moments Al Horford lives for.
Game 7 of a first round playoff series on your home floor. Everybody watching. Pressure on. Season on the line. All or nothing. Win and move on or lose and go fishing.
That's Horford's time, same ways it's always been for the Hawks' center and emerging leader. Just three years into his NBA career Horford is already an All-Star and the undeniable leader of his team.
If the Hawks are indeed going to finish what they started against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 7 Sunday at Philips Arena, they'll need a heavy dose of Horford's game and leadership to move on.
"I think this is big moment for Al, not only in terms of his play but as a leadership opportunity for him," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. "Everybody I talk to that watches Al play, they love everything about him. They think he has those elite leadership qualities that just jump out at you as you watch him or watch him on tape. So it would be huge for him to step up and have a big time game on a big time stage."
There is no bigger stage than Game 7, with a trip to the Eastern Conference semifinals against Orlando on the line.
Horford is well aware of what is at stake, having rallied his crew from a Game 5 meltdown on their home floor to a rousing Game 6 win on the road to stave off elimination and force this deciding game on their home floor.
"We had to dig down to get to this point," Horford said of the way the Hawks snapped a three-game losing streak to get to this point. "I know a lot of people thought we were done. It didn't look good. But we bounced back and showed what this team is all about. And that says more to me than anything. It was gut-check time and we showed up."
It helps when your 24-year-old steadying force is leading the way. Horford had 15 points and 15 rebounds in the Hawks' 83-69 Game 6 win. Even though the Hawks couldn't hold on down the stretch in Game 5, Horford did finish his night with a playoff career-high 25 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks.
This series, after all, was supposed to be a showcase opportunity for Horford anyway. With Bucks center Andrew Bogut sitting out the postseason because of injury, Horford was expected to have his way with the Bucks inside.
Horford has been dominant at times, averaging 15.5 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks while shooting 54 percent from the floor and 77 percent from the free throw line. But he's met stiff resistance from Bucks veteran big men Kurt Thomas and Dan Gadzuric. He's been under constant fire from the crafty Thomas, who has done his best to get under Horford's skin, turning their low-post jostling into near wrestling matches at some points.
Horford has managed to keep his cool through it all, while also serving as the Hawks' emotional center during the crisis that was their three-game slide in this series.
"Pretty much every team meeting we've ever had Al has called it," said Hawks forward Marvin Williams. "It goes back further than just this series, really. Three years ago during his rookie season when we played Boston, he was the one who brought in the inspirational video and put it on when we were down [2-0] in that series and clawed our way back to take them to seven games."
Williams said Horford called a team meeting after a deflating road loss to Golden State Feb. 21, covering all the bases before the Hawks played at Utah the next night. They beat the Jazz on the road for the first time in 17 years.
"He is that vocal guy," Williams continued. "Smoove [Josh Smith] is vocal, too. He gets after it sometimes. But Al is a leader in a different way. He's the most vocal guy on this team. [Hawks captain and All-Star] Joe [Johnson] is more of a lead by example kind of guy. Al has always been our most vocal leader even though he's younger and hasn't been in the league as long as some of these other guys."
Horford's relative lack of experience is the only thing that has kept him from stepping up sooner. With Johnson and Mike Bibby established as captains, he's had to navigate his way around a locker room that also includes seasoned veterans like Joe Smith and Jason Collins.
Woodson, however, isn't concerned with age or any other mitigating factor where Horford is concerned. He knows that Horford has suppressed some of his natural leadership qualities in order to blend in better and be a good teammate.
But enough is enough.
"This is Al's third year, he's earned his keep and proven himself," Woodson said. "He's battle tested. Every step this team has taken, into the playoffs and everything else, we've done with Al Horford holding down the middle for us. So I don't think there is any question that we need his leadership, on and off the floor."
Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and the author of NBA.com's Hang Time blog. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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