How are the Celtics in the second round? The answer is Al Horford

BOSTON – Let’s talk about Al Horford.

Average Al, as one Boston radio host playfully dubbed him. Uncommitted Al, as another implied in 2016, when Horford skipped an early season game to be with his wife, Amelia, for the birth of their daughter. Overpaid Al, as so many fans moaned when Horford’s scoring failed to crack double figures.

So what do you call a guy who wins a first-round series for you?

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OK, so Horford had help leading battered Boston to a 112-96 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals. He had Jayson Tatum, the baby-faced, 20-year-old rookie who shrugged off the pressure of playing in his first Game 7 to score 20 points. He had Terry Rozier, Kyrie Irving’s backup until early March, who punctuated his often testy matchup with Eric Bledsoe with 26 points. He had Semi Ojeleye, the mop-up man turned starter who became a Giannis-stopper in two of the last three games of this series.

See Horford throughout his years with the Celtics: 

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Al Horford with the Boston Celtics
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Al Horford with the Boston Celtics
BOSTON, MA - JULY 8: Al Horford poses for a portrait as the newest member of the Boston Celtics on July 8, 2016 at the Boston Celtics Practice Facility in Waltham, Massachusetts. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JULY 8: David Ortiz #34 of the Boston Red Sox greets newly acquired Boston Celtics player Al Horford and his son Ean after Horford threw out the ceremonial first pitch before a game against the Tampa Bay Rays on July 8, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 21: Gorgui Dieng #5 of the Minnesota Timberwolves defends against Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics during the game on November 21, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 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 Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
BOSTON - DECEMBER 9: Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) flushes down a dunk over Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) during the second quarter. The Boston Celtics host the Toronto Raptors at TD Garden in Boston on Dec. 9, 2016. (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 09: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics looks on during the second half against the Toronto Raptors at TD Garden on December 9, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 18: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics shoots the ball during a game against the New York Knicks on January 18, 2017 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 21: Portland Trail Blazers forward Meyers Leonard (#11) is called for holding as Boston Celtics center Al Horford (#42) drove to the basket during the first quarter. The Boston Celtics host the Portland Trail Blazers at TD Garden in Boston on Jan. 21, 2017. (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
PORTLAND, OR - FEBRUARY 9: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics shoots a free throw against the Portland Trail Blazers during the game on February 9, 2017 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA -� MARCH 24: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics celebrates against the Phoenix Suns on March 24, 2017 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)
WALTHAM - APRIL 25: Celtics' Al Horford speaks to reporters during Celtics practice in Waltham, MA on Apr. 25, 2017. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 26: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics reacts after scoring against the Chicago Bulls during the third quarter of Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals at TD Garden on April 26, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - MAY 17: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics handles the ball against Kyle Korver #26 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first half during Game One of the 2017 NBA Eastern Conference Finals at TD Garden on May 17, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 25: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics poses for a portrait during the 2017-18 NBA Media Day on September 25, 2017 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 12: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics looks tp pass the ball durinhg the first quarter of the game against the Toronto Raptors at TD Garden on November 12, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 30: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics looks on during the first half of the game against the Philadelphia 76ers at TD Garden on November 30, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts.(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 25: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics looks on during the game against the Washington Wizards at TD Garden on December 25, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 04: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics leaves the court after the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at TD Garden on February 4, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 28: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics looks to pass during a game against the Charlotte Hornets at TD Garden on February 28, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
SACRAMENTO, CA - MARCH 25: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics warms up wearing a shirt to honor Stephon Clark prior to the game against the Sacramento Kings on March 25, 2018 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. 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 Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - MARCH 20: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics shoots the ball during a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at TD Garden on March 20, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 15: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics dunks during the fourth quarter of Game One of Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs against the Milwaukee Bucks during at TD Garden on April 15, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
MILWUAKEE, WI - APRIL 20: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics talks to the media after Game Three of Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs against the Milwaukee Bucks on April 20, 2018 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 28: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics celebrates during the first quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks of Game Seven in Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden on April 28, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Still, Horford was magnificent. He had 26 points, eight rebounds and three assists in Game 7, but the numbers — as they often do with Horford — only tell some of the story. There was the defense he played on Thon Maker, who totaled 22 points in Games 3 and 4 … and 11 the rest of the way. There was the seamless transition he made to center (not his favorite spot) when Boston went small in its Game 5 win. There was the way he took charge in the second half Sunday, with Jaylen Brown out and the Bucks rallying, when Horford coolly knocked down three shots and assisted on another to swell a three-point lead back to 10.

“I thought he was really, really big for us,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.

Added Bucks guard Khris Middleton: “Horford was dominant.”

Dominant. That’s not a word you see associated with Horford. In a way, it’s surprising Horford has succeeded at all. Let me break down the fourth wall for a minute. I grew up in Boston. Boston is not an easy place to play. Sign a big contract — and Horford’s four-year, $113 million contract is a whopper — and you become synonymous with it. You’re not Al Horford — you’re $113 million man Al Horford.

Some can handle it. But the landscape is littered with ones who couldn’t. Carl Crawford signed a seven-year, $142 million contract with the Red Sox in 2011. He lasted two seasons. Rick Pitino inked a 10-year, $70 million deal to save the Celtics in 1997. He made it through 3 ½. Today, David Price — the embattled lefty armed with a seven-year, $217 million contract he signed in 2015 — is a handful of bad starts from being run out of town.

Hell, I’m still irritated by Aaron Sele.

Horford seemed like a candidate to join that list. He isn’t fiery, he doesn’t put up eye-popping numbers — the 18.6 points he averaged in 2013-14 are still his career best — and his salary is in rarified air occupied by names like Harden, Westbrook and James. And he came from Atlanta, transitioning from a market that exerts a pocket lighter’s worth of pressure to one that hits you with a blowtorch.

Danny Ainge knows Boston. He spent 7 ½ seasons here as a player and has run the Celtics’ basketball operations for the last 15. Did Ainge have any concerns about Horford’s ability to handle a major market?

“I consider that with all the guys we look at,” Ainge told Yahoo Sports. “But I wasn’t concerned about that with Al. He’s such a pro with how he approaches his job. And he knew what Boston was about. He knew the history. We get so much out of Al. He’s been such a stabilizing force for our team.”

That’s an attribute of Horford’s — he’s consistent. Sure, he has bad stretches — a handful of games in late February is an example — but as bodies dropped in Boston, Horford was just … there. He played 72 games, the fourth straight season he has played at least 68. He averaged 12.9 points, but saw his 3-point shooting jump to 42.9 percent, a career high. He pulled down 7.4 rebounds, but anchored the NBA’s top-ranked defense. He began the season as the third offensive option, behind All-Stars Irving and Gordon Hayward, and finished it melding together a collection of early 20-somethings gearing up for their first extensive postseason run.

“He’s been a stabilizing force since he’s walked in our locker room,” Stevens said. “I think that’s the best way to phrase it. He provides stability for all of us. Whenever you have 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 very calming influence to the younger players.”

Has Horford ever felt the pressure of playing in an unforgiving market? “Not really,” Horford told Yahoo Sports. He was prepared for it. David Ortiz talked to him about it. Pedro Martinez, too. “I knew what I was getting into,” Horford said. “People here are passionate. They expect a lot of great things. I’m working towards that.”

Has the criticism ever gotten to him?

“One of the things I really try to focus on is on my team and getting wins,” Horford said. “I feel like that’s how it’s been since I came into the league. My focus has always been on being a team guy and helping us win. It’s never been about the numbers for me. I always base my success on my team’s success, regular season and postseason. People are going to talk, and it is what it is. I’m just worried about winning.”

On Monday, Horford will be back, his challenge even greater. Boston will have home-court advantage in the second round against Philadelphia — but it will be a considerable underdogs. The Sixers have a pair of budding superstars and a rotation of veterans that balance them out. After trying to stay in front of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Horford will have to deal with Ben Simmons. After stifling Maker, Horford must now mix it up with Joel Embiid.

To win, Boston must be steady. To win, Boston needs Al Horford.

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