Underappreciated Al Horford Is the Perfect Star for Overlooked Atlanta Hawks

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMay 14, 2015

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 13:  Al Horford #15 of the Atlanta Hawks celebrates the win against the Washington Wizards after Game Five of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena on May 13, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Hawks beat the Wizards 82 - 81.  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)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Al Horford's Game 5 performance during the Atlanta Hawks' second-round series with the Washington Wizards should go down on his resume as a signature showing, one that catapults him firmly into the realm of superstars that he should already have occupied for a long while. But it won't, because Horford has never been about individual recognition and will likely go back to his old ways in the very near future. 

That's not to say he won't have outings as effective as the stellar one he put together on Wednesday night, highlighted by the go-ahead bucket with less than two seconds remaining. 

He will. They'll just be interspersed between the nights in which he's perfectly content doing whatever it takes to help Atlanta win more games, regardless of whether he's the one with the glamorous line in the box score. And thus, Horford will continue to be underrated. 

It feels inevitable, doesn't it? 

Maybe it's up to us to help this Florida product drop the "underappreciated" tag he's carried for so long. Perhaps it's on us to make sure he gets the recognition he deserves before it's too late to marvel at the excellent performances he puts up, especially when it matters most. After all, we know he's not exactly in the business of self-promotion. 

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Some players like to talk trash, as we've seen all too well in this series. And sometimes, it backfires: 

But Horford was never going to rub it in after he hit the game-winning bucket to give his Hawks a 3-2 series lead. Instead, he was quick to defer credit and emphasize how he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. 

"(Dennis Schroder) had a great drive, and then when I just saw the ball go up, I just ran in there," the big man said after the game, via ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz. "It was just a hustle play, making a winning play. I just got the ball. My first instinct was just to put it in the basket."

But as Arnovitz emphasizes, this wasn't just any hustle play:

Humility is one of Horford's signature attributes, which is why describing the sequence as 'just a hustle play' is a disservice to storytelling. A more detailed account of what happened would specify that at the time Wall's block hurtles off the glass, seven other players on the floor were closer to the ball than Horford. Only Korver and Bradley Beal—surgically attached to him in the far corner as he has been all serieshad more distance between themselves and the basket.

Yet it was Horford who sprinted, attacked and then soared past Nene to corral the ball in midair. When Horford landed, he gathered the ball with both hands, sprang modestly, then dropped it through the net with his right. Atlanta 82, Washington 81, which would hold as the final score as the Hawks take a 3-2 series lead to Washington for Game 6 on Friday night.

Moreover, this was just the capstone on an already impressive performance. 

Horford now stands alone as the first player in Hawks history to go for 20 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in a playoff game. And even that's selling him a bit short, as he exploded for 23 points, 11 boards, two assists, five rejections and no turnovers while drilling 10 of his 18 shots from the field. 

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 13:  Al Horford #15 of the Atlanta Hawks draws a foul from Paul Pierce #34 of the Washington Wizards during Game Five of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena on May 13, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NO
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Since 1985, only four players have recorded or topped those counting stats in the playoffs.

Patrick Ewing did so in 1992 against the Chicago Bulls. Then, no one would match his performance until Shaquille O'Neal in 2000 and Dikembe Mutombo in 2001, though the Philadelphia 76ers' rejection machine admittedly shot just 5-of-14 during his performance. It had been 14 years since anyone matched those numbers, but now Horford has done so.

Notice anything about the first three? They're all Hall of Famers, although O'Neal is technically waiting for inclusion and currently functions as a first-ballot lock when he's finally eligible.

Horford's game-winning bucket was quite clearly his signature moment during a signature performance, but boiling his efforts down to a single play—impressive as it may have been—is selling him short, just as the world so often seems wont to do. 

It wasn't even his only highlight. 

We can't forget about his put-back slam in transition, one that he threw down over an unsuspecting Marcin Gortat:

And how about his rejections against Nene? This was only one of three in the first half: 

Fortunately, his teammates aren't forgetting anything.

As Korver told Arnovitz after the Game 5 victory, Horford's all-around game has been huge for the Hawks: 

Al has been the cornerstone for us, for the Hawks, for a bunch of years. It wasn't just that play, though. Al played an amazing game. He had huge blocked shots. He had that big corner 3. His ability to step out and be a threat with that 15- to 17-footer—he's one of the best in the NBA, maybe in the history of the NBA doing that. He's such a threat. He's shown time and time again that he comes up big in clutch situations—on different levels, not just NBA, but in college he won those championships [at Florida]. He's a great all-around player.

This wasn't Horford's first big game of the playoffs. During both Atlanta's first-round victory over the Brooklyn Nets and this second-round series with the Wizards, he's consistently been the team's stabilizing force while validating the third All-Star selection of his still-young career.

After his Wednesday night performance, the 28-year-old big man is averaging 15.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.7 blocks during the second season. Even more impressively, he's doing so while shooting 48.2 percent from the field, drilling 85.7 percent of his looks at the charity stripe and earning a player efficiency rating of 20.9. 

And that's despite losing some effectiveness to his injured pinky during the opening round. 

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 9: Al Horford #15 of the Atlanta Hawks before the game against the Washington Wizards in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at the Verizon Center on May 9, 2015 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: Us
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

But Horford still hasn't received much attention. He falls out of the national spotlight, which often prefers to focus on LeBron James' highlights, Stephen Curry's perimeter shooting, Derrick Rose's return and more from the biggest names who draw the most widespread recognition. Obviously, that's deserved attention, but it's time to include this center in the party.

Then again, Horford probably wouldn't have it any other way, which is only fitting for the star of a team that's content to remain a contender while receiving far less attention than the others who fit into that category.  

The Hawks have indeed been disappointing during this postseason, failing to dispatch the Nets in expeditious fashion and then dropping Game 3 to a Wizards squad that didn't feature John Wall in the lineup. But they're still alive, they still boast home-court advantage if they make the Eastern Conference Finals and they're in a great position to do so after taking a 3-2 series lead. 

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Cavaliers are trying to overcome injuries to Kevin Love (out for the season after shoulder surgery), Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. The Chicago Bulls' offense has ground to a halt against Cleveland, and the Hawks obviously wouldn't have to worry about any team from the Western Conference unless they reached the franchise's first NBA Finals since moving to Atlanta. 

Nevertheless, they're probably done serving as favorites during this postseason, even after a 60-win regular season that featured four All-Star appearances and an undefeated month. If they beat the Wizards in either six or seven games, they'll likely go into the Eastern Conference Finals as the underdogs, regardless of whether they're facing the Bulls or Cavs. 

They're not even favored in Game 6 of this current series against a Washington team that features a much more effective offense than it boasted throughout the regular season:

And Horford would presumably expect nothing less. As this excerpt from Zach Lowe's January feature on the former Gator made clear for Grantland, the spotlight simply isn't a concern for him—winning is:

Horford was the pulse of the team at Florida, [former head coach Billy] Donovan says. All the national attention on Joakim Noah could have created resentment, but Horford didn’t care. A reporter asked Horford after the team’s second national title win, against Ohio State, if he felt any jealousy over the mob scribbling quotes from Noah. 'Why would that bother me?' Horford asked, according to Donovan. 'We’re both getting rings.'

Two national championships in college hasn't been enough to earn Horford superstar status. A great career at the NBA level, one that's already left him as one of the better players in franchise history, has had the same effect. He's earned three All-Star berths and would likely have more if his pectoral muscles had remained intact, but it still doesn't feel as if he's truly considered an All-Star in the eyes of many.

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 29:  Al Horford #15 of the Atlanta Hawks celebrates a victory against the Brooklyn Nets in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NBA Playoffs on April 29, 2015 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Would winning a title at the NBA level—however unlikely that may feel after Atlanta's failure to look like a No. 1 seed in many of its postseason games—change his status? 

Perhaps. 

But even if it does, this center won't change. He'll still go about his business in quiet fashion, trying to make an impact by setting perfect screens, knocking down mid-range jumpers, putting himself in position to make crucial plays and then deferring the credit all the same. 

Atlanta, an overlooked team that's driven by the league's most underappreciated superstar-caliber player, wouldn't have it any other way. 

Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and are current heading into May 14's games.

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.