Kobe Bryant. Derrick Rose. Dwight Howard. Amare Stoudemire.
Many recent injuries to star players have forced playoff-bound teams to suddenly take a harder look in the mirror. The Hawks have been doing that almost as soon as the season started.
Just 11 games into this condensed season, Atlanta All-Star center Al Horford went down with a torn left pectoral that required surgery and at least three months of rehab. However, the Hawks still managed to clinch a playoff spot on Monday, then got great news the next day when Horford was medically cleared for contact work.
On Thursday, Horford participated in his first full-contact practice with the team since doctors gave him the green light. It couldn’t have come at a better time with the playoffs set to begin in just nine days.
However, the practice did little to assure Horford that he’s ready to be the force that the fifth-year pro has proven himself to be.
“Today was the first chance I got to play 3-on-3 with the guys and I’m not where I need to be,” Horford told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I had a deadline in my mind that I wanted to be back by the last game of the regular season, but I’m not where I need to be. That is a little frustrating for me.
“I’m going to keep trying to work, but I’m not there yet.”
Horford hasn’t played in a regular-season game since a loss to the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 11. He went under the knife on Jan. 17. Two weeks ago, Horford returned to the team for non-contact practice but is annoyed with his progress up to this point despite “doing everything on schedule.”
“Once (you) get moving and doing different stuff that is when you start to realize (how far you have to go) and I feel limited,” Horford said. “More because of the injury, I’m limited. I’ve been working on my game and each week I’m improving and getting better at things, but it’s just not going as fast as I would like it.”
And not as fast as the Hawks would like either as Atlanta only has four games left in the regular season. On Friday, the fifth-seeded Hawks host a nationally televised game against the team they’re currently slated to play in the first round — and a team they’re all too familiar with — the Celtics.
“When you play in the post, you have to have a level of physicality and you have to be able to bang with another player and I’m not confident doing things like that yet,” Horford said. “The other thing is keeping (his left) arm above (his shoulder) for a certain period of time, that is another weak point for me. If I can’t do that, I’m going to be in trouble. The last thing I want to do is hurt the team.”
Re-inserting Horford if he’s less than 100 percent may not be a good option, but the coaches clearly aren’t concerned with a healthy Horford disrupting team chemistry. Coach Larry Drew wants the 6-foot-10, 250-pound double-double machine on the floor as soon as possible. In Drew’s words, “When he tells us.”
The Hawks and Celtics played a memorable first-round series in 2007, the same year the Boston Three Party was formed. Atlanta gave Boston a tougher time than any team would end up doing in the playoffs, taking the Celtics to seven games before being ousted. Horford, a rookie that year, played the best ball of his debut season in that series. After averaging 10.1 points and 9.7 rebounds a game during the regular season, he averaged 12.6 points and 10.4 rebounds against the Celtics’ stingy defense while shooting 47.2 percent from the field.
Since then, Atlanta and Boston have continued to test each other every time they meet. The Celtics have taken both contests this season with a 79-76 victory on March 19 and an 88-86 overtime win just eight days ago.