Al Horford's Return From Injury Makes Atlanta Hawks Relevant Again In NBA Playoffs

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 28: Al Horford #15 of the Atlanta Hawks reacts after a turnover by the Washington Wizards at Philips Arena on December 28, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Al Horford started for the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night for the time since early January. The All-Star center made his impact felt immediately, helping the Hawks to stave off elimination for at least one more game in their first round NBA Playoffs series against the Boston Celtics.

There was some speculation that Al Horford might miss the rest of the season when the Atlanta Hawks' center was sidelined in January with a torn pectoral muscle. The Dominican Republic native was forced to miss the remainder of the regular season, but the Hawks big man returned just when it mattered, as a loss Tuesday night would have eliminated Atlanta from the 2012 NBA Playoffs.

Horford returned in limited minutes during Sunday's loss to the Boston Celtics on the road, and -- lucky for the Hawks -- that was apparently the only warm-up their big man needed. Whereas Sunday's blowout loss made it seem as though it was a matter of when and not if the Hawks would be sent packing in the first round, Tuesday's victory breathed new life into a team that looked like it had packed it in before halftime just two days before.

Tuesday's victory wasn't without flaw, of course, as it looked like Atlanta was going to fumble away another game playing its patented brand of second-half Hawks basketball. Horford was eventually able to right the ship, however, and the Hawks forced at least one more game in the seven-game series.

To be clear, Horford didn't have a lot to live up to, considering the Hawks had previously been using the offensively-inept Jason Collins, the corpse of Erick Dampier and former NBA D-League scrapper Ivan Johnson as the men in the middle while their two best post options -- Horford and the also-injured Zaza Pachulia -- sat on the bench in suits. Horford's presence was palpable from the outset, giving Atlanta an added dimension that Boston apparently wasn't quite ready to handle.

Horford's contributions were felt all over the box score, as the center scored 19 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and added three notches apiece in the assists, blocks and steals columns, but it seemed as though he actually did much more than that while watching the game. When the Hawks dumped it into the post, Horford made the right move -- or multiple moves, on a couple of occasions -- adding the oft-ignored dimension of "putting the ball in the bucket" that had caused the offense to grow stagnant at times this series as the wings went into isolation-mode without inside scoring options available.

Their center's impact was felt on the defensive end, too, culminating in the last 10 seconds of the game. Hawks teammate Josh Smith threw an errant passed that ended up in the hands of point guard Rajon Rondo on an inbound attempt, giving Boston the chance to score the game-winner and send Atlanta out fishing earlier than they had planned. The Hawks don't have to buy their fishing licenses quite yet, however, because Horford stepped up and contained Rondo on the other end, stymieing Boston's final possession by causing Rondo to lose control of the basketball as time expired, securing Atlanta's 87-86 victory.

It'll be interesting to see if the Celtics key in on Horford in Game 6 considering the performance he brought about on Tuesday night, but one would think extra attention on the post would allow Atlanta's other players to be a bit more effective. Joe Johnson hasn't lived up to the max contract he was given before the season, Josh Smith looked like the injury that forced him to miss Game 3 was still bothering him and, for as well as Marvin Williams played on Tuesday, that type of performance has become the exception rather than the rule for him this season.

Nevertheless, the Hawks are alive and kicking for at least one more game thanks to the play of Horford in Tuesday's potential elimination game. Whether or not Atlanta is able to complete the comeback and win the seven-game series is up for debate, but one definitely has to wonder what this series would have looked like if Horford had been healthy for the duration.

For more on the Celtics, head over to CelticsBlog and SB Nation Boston. For more on theHawks, check out Peachtree Hoops and SB Nation Atlanta.

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