ATLANTA - With 2:36 left in the third quarter in Game 3 of the Celtics-Hawks playoff series Saturday night, Atlanta forward Josh Smith, as he is known to do, came swooping out of nowhere and blocked a layup attempt by his old Oak Hill Academy roomie, Rajon Rondo. No big deal. The ball went into the stands, where Hawks rookie Al Horford retrieved it.
Before giving it back to the officials, however, Horford, in what can be described as a moment of youthful exuberance, played to the Philips Arena crowd and pretended to brush something off the ball. Was he cleaning it? Rubbing it in the Celtics' faces?
"It was the first time I've done it," Horford said yesterday. "It was very spontaneous, an in-the-moment type of thing." Well, that certainly clears it up.
But it wasn't the only time Horford went a little overboard. After nailing a big jumper over Paul Pierce with 22 seconds left in the game, a basket that was the final dagger in the Hawks' 102-93 victory, Horford was seen barking at Pierce on his way back up the floor, although he later said he considered Pierce "a good guy."
Um, Al, do you think that's a good idea, especially when you're still trailing, 2-1, in the series?
"It was an emotional game," Horford said. "They've been talking since Game 1 and we've been talking back. And, this time, we came out on top."
Yes, they did. And for potential villains, Horford doesn't really fit the bill. He's a potential Rookie of the Year (his coach, Mike Woodson, said after Game 3 that it would be a "travesty" if Horford didn't win it) who really doesn't look or play like a rookie at all. "I think the rookie thing kinda goes out the window now," Horford said. "I'm here. And I'm here to win."
And, one could argue, Horford is the future face of the franchise. Joe Johnson is the All-Star and Smith is the high flyer, but it was Horford, the rookie, who took it upon himself to call down to his alma mater in Gainesville, Fla., and ask the video guy to send him a 20-minute highlight film of "When We Were Kings," the documentary on Muhammad Ali's upset of George Foreman in Zaire. (They had it in the Florida vault, apparently.) The theme: anything is possible. Then the Hawks went out and proved it by taking apart the Celtics in the second half to climb back into the series. Game 4 is tonight.
"I just felt I had to do something to help us win," Horford said. "That's the only way I looked at it."
Smith (27 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists) and Johnson (23 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists) were big parts of the Hawks' win, but, so too was Atlanta's prize pup, who hit the Celtics for 17 points, 14 rebounds, 6 assists, and 1 steal. But if you tuned in to ESPN for highlights of the win, as Woodson did yesterday, you saw the talking heads focusing as much on Horford's antics as anything else Atlanta did. As you might suspect, they did not go over well in Celtic Nation.
"He's a young player," Pierce said. "He's getting caught up in the moment. He has these little antics, but we're not going to get caught up in that. We're just going to continue to play basketball."
Johnson said he didn't see anything provocative in what Horford did. "Not at all," said the onetime Celtic. "We were out there having a great time, having fun. The little antics Al did, I think they're pretty funny."
Woodson, too, tried to downplay Horford's theatrics. Woodson is Mr. Old School, a Hoosier son (Broad Ripple High in Indianapolis) who went on to play for Bobby Knight at Indiana. He's not exactly Mr. Bump and Grind.
"I didn't see it until I watched the tape," Woodson said. "And then I saw it on SportsCenter. I'm not into all that. Players today get caught up in the moment, which is OK, but you have to be ready to meet the challenge. That's what it's all about."
"It's already a physical series," Woodson added when asked if he expected the Celtics to react to Horford's antics. "Bodies are going everywhere. I'm not telling my guys not to do it. It's their thing, I guess. As long as they play hard, and do what they're supposed to do at both ends of the floor, I'm OK with it. I guess. I'm not trying to add fuel to the fire. I just want our guys to be relaxed, have fun, and play."
Woodson is right about one thing: It is a physical series. But it's also a verbal series, starting with Mike Bibby's darts at the Boston fans. And, when you think about it, any series with Kevin Garnett automatically qualifies as a verbal series.
"That's all he does is talk," Johnson said of Garnett. "He talks probably every play. A lot of time he talks to himself. It's crazy."
Horford doesn't immediately get put into the "Woofer" category. At Florida, it was Joakim Noah who was Mr. Emotion. "I was the one who was laid back," Horford said, "and who cooled everyone down and kept everyone together. But if someone is coming at you and thinking that you're going to back down, you've got to let them know you won't do that. And I won't."
Peter May can be reached at email@example.com.