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Al Horford is the perfect complementary NBA player, but in Game 7 the Celtics needed him to be a star

Horford delivered in Boston’s huge win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics - Game Seven Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

BOSTON -- Back in March when Billy Donovan came through town, he offered the perfect quote about Al Horford, who helped him with two national championships when they were together at the University of Florida.

“When he played for me, there’s no doubt in my mind he could have averaged 25 points and 15 rebounds. Easy,” Donovan said. “We would have never won a national championship. The thing I’ve always respected about him is it’s always about winning. He’s never been a guy that’s been wrapped up in scoring and the numbers. He’s wrapped up in winning.”

That’s Horford, essentially. He does so many things that help you win games, and some of the come at the expense of personal glory and individual accolades. He spaces the floor and acts as a secondary playmaker. He runs the defense and often matches up with top scorers.

The man is all about winning and sometimes the numbers don’t always match up with the pursuit of victories. As his current coach, Brad Stevens, noted last week, “He makes the right play so often that you don’t want to skew that mindset.”

Horford is the perfect complementary star, the one guy who could be picked last in the All-Star Game and not let it bother him. Yet, with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward out with injuries, Horford is also the Celtics’ best player. And that means that even more is expected from him.

Horford made the right plays again and again in the Celtics’ 112-96 Game 7 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night, and the situation called for him to post big numbers. Horford demanded the ball on the block and he powered through any and all Bucks who got in his way, finishing with 26 points on 13-for-17 shooting.

All but four of those shots were in the paint and most of them were at the rim. He was aggressive early, which established a tone for the rest of the game. When the C’s got in trouble in the second quarter, Horford checked back in and re-established control.

“It was probably the one moment — end of the first, start of the second — where we looked a little bit lethargic,” Stevens said. “When we came back to the huddle for the first timeout we had actually increased our lead by two, and it was largely due to him.”

Horford was a perfect 5-for-5 in the third quarter as Boston held off a Milwaukee run and built a double-digit lead. When things threatened to go sideways in the fourth, Stevens called a timeout to get Horford back in the game and bring order to the proceedings. He is the ultimate security blanket for a team that’s starting four players with a combined seven years of experience.

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics - Game Five Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

It was fitting that even on what should have been his signature moment with the Celtics, much of the attention was focused on his younger teammates. Rookie Jayson Tatum looked every bit the star in the making with 20 points. Fearless point guard Terry Rozier went off for 26 points, punctuating the final moments of Game 7 with a barrage of 3-pointers while his antagonist Eric Bledsoe was relegated to the bench.

Then there was Semi Ojeleye, who was thrown into the starting lineup in Game 6 and given the mammoth task of defending Giannis Antetokounmpo. Of course, no one can truly stop Giannis and the Freak went off, pushing this series to seven games.

Back in Boston, Ojeleye had his best day as a pro. Antetokounmpo had what can charitably be called a tough 22 points on 7-for-17 shooting. Ojeleye even knocked down a 3 and pulled off a Euro step. In typical fashion, Horford deflected praise on to the unheralded rookie.

“Semi is probably the guy that we need to be talking about because defensively, we’re not able to do all that we were able to do without Semi,” Horford said. “I felt like he changed the series for us.”

That’s true to an extent. Stevens’ lineup adjustment in Game 5 paid big dividends. With his strength and mobility, Ojeleye kept Antetokounmpo away from the basket and forced him to take contested jumpers. Giannis was awesome in Game 6, but he was neutralized during both games in Boston, which proved to be the difference.

The lineup switch wasn’t just about Ojeleye’s defense. It also shifted Horford to the five where he could overpower the likes of Thon Maker and Tyler Zeller. It’s no accident that Horford had his biggest offensive games in the series as a smallball center.

That was as much a factor in Stevens’ decision-making as any other consideration. Stevens can do those kinds of things because in Horford he has a malleable big man who can do a bit of everything.

“He’s been a stabilizing force since he walked into our locker room,” Stevens said. “He provides stability for all of us. Whenever you’ve lost other guys to injury, when people aren’t available, when things aren’t going your way he’s likely been through it. He provides a calming influence to the younger players.”

Al Horford changed the Celtics’ trajectory when he signed on as a free agent two years ago. His arrival brought legitimacy to a group that was long on effort and short on star power.

There will be a day coming when he can go back to being the complement for Irving and Hayward, and make life easier for Tatum and Jaylen Brown. His efforts will go under the radar yet again and that will be fine with Horford because he is all about winning.

For now, he’s doing what needs to be done.