SAN FRANCISCO – Alone in the corner of a cramped visitor’s locker room in Dallas more than 850 days and two teams ago, a 33-year-old Al Horford politely disputed the notion that All-Star selections aren’t legacy-defining for a player’s career.
“No, no, no, it matters, no question,” he told NBA.com back then. “I always play to win and for my teams to do well, but you definitely want to be recognized.”
Fast forward to today, where Horford continues to accomplish those stated goals, four seasons removed from playing in his last All-Star Game. Chalk that up to the power of shining luminously on the game’s grandest stage. It took Horford 14 seasons and an NBA-record 141 career playoff games to arrive here. But the veteran made his presence felt painfully for Golden State in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday, by lighting up the Warriors for 26 points on the eve of his 36th birthday.
The performance in Boston’s 120-108 triumph marked the first time this postseason Horford led the Celtics in scoring and merits the big man’s perch atop today’s edition of our 2022 Race to the Finals MVP Ladder.
“Just excited to be able to share this stage with these group of guys,” Horford said. “We have a lot of great guys here, guys that have really bought into what we’re trying to do.”
You’ll see a couple of them listed alongside Horford among the top three, as we prepare to go into Sunday’s Game 2 at Chase Center (8 ET, ABC) with Boston leading the series 1-0.
And now, the Top 5 in our 2022 Race to the NBA Finals MVP Ladder after Game 1:
1. Al Horford, Boston Celtics
Game 1 stats: 26 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists
Horford knocked down a career-high six 3-pointers, racking up 11 of 26 points in the decisive fourth quarter. During that final frame, Horford shot 4-for-4 from the field and 2-for-2 from deep in a significant moment the veteran acknowledged he’s been waiting for. Game 1 registered as Horford’s second-best scoring performance of the ’21-22 campaign, regular season or playoffs. As colleague Shaun Powell astutely notes, the five-time All-Star also provided veteran leadership and fierce defense in crucial moments, elements that don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet. Interestingly, none of Horford’s field goals were contested. That’s sure to change in Game 2.
2. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Game 1 stats: 24 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists
In handing Horford his well-deserved flowers, we’d be remiss not to mention the spark Brown provided in ensuring Boston would finish as the first team to win a Finals outing by double digits after trailing by 10 points or more (12 to be exact) at the start of the fourth quarter. With superstar Jayson Tatum struggling (12 points, 3-17 FGs), Brown scored five quick points to cut the deficit to 7, before tossing Robert Williams III a lob for a dunk that pulled Boston to within 5. Brown nabbed a steal on Golden State’s next possession, finding Payton Prichard for a layup that chopped the Warriors’ lead to 3 points. Individually, Brown dished as many times (5) in the fourth quarter as Golden State.
3. Derrick White, Boston Celtics
Game 1 stats: 21 points, 1 rebounds, 3 assists
Across the first 16 games of the postseason, White shot 10-for-48 from 3-point range. But in his last three outings, that’s elevated to 11-for-18. A new father, the reserve guard is averaging 15.6 points over his last five games, hitting 47.4% from the field and 43.0% from beyond the arc. White was certainly feeling it in Game 1, especially in the second half, when he shot 2-for-3 from 3-point range in the fourth as Boston outscored the high-powered Warriors 40-16 in that final frame. “Every day, he’s done something new to make you go, ‘That’s why he’s here,’” said point guard Marcus Smart.
4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Game 1 stats: 34 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists
We saw a vintage Curry performance, as the 34-year-old torched Boston to set an NBA Finals record for the most 3-pointers made in a quarter (six). The veteran missed his first 3, then smoked the Celtics by shooting 6-for-8 from downtown as Golden State built a 7-point lead. Curry’s 21 points registered as the most in a Finals quarter since Michael Jordan put up 22 in the fourth quarter of 1993’s Game 4 vs. Phoenix. All the damage on the night didn’t come from deep, either. Curry has now put together six NBA Finals outings in which he’s made at least 7 3-pointers.
5. Andrew Wiggins, Golden State Warriors
Game 1 stats: 20 points, 5 rebounds
We highlighted Tatum’s struggles earlier, and Wiggins certainly played a role in that on the defensive end. With Wiggins serving as the primary defender, Tatum shot just 1-for-5. Offensively, the forward finished second behind Curry in scoring with 20 points on 8-for-15 shooting. The performance marked Wiggins’ third career 20-point playoff game. After defending Dallas superstar guard Luka Doncic in the Western Conference finals, Wiggins draws another tough assignment in trying to slow down Tatum and Brown. The 27-year-old stood strong in Game 1. But we all know it’s unlikely Tatum will continue to pile up 3-for-17 shooting performances in this series.
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