By Michael Grimm

Al Horford is 34 years old, and while he still has some game left, he has lost a step on defense.

So it was a shock to see him back as a starter last night in the Sixers make or break game 3 against the Celtics.

Horford is appearing in the NBA playoffs for the 12th time, and started the 102-94 Game 3 loss.

Instead of sticking Matisse Thybulle on Jayson Tatum and bringing Horford off the bench, as he’d done in Game 2, coach Brett Brown opened with the veteran big man and played him nearly 38 minutes.

Horford twice fouled Jaylen Brown on three-point attempts. The first, a first-quarter mistake made after Horford had lost Brown cutting backdoor three possessions earlier, elicited mild frustration. The second sparked vehement disagreement before Brown’s free throws erased a 90-89 Sixers lead.

While he did a solid job in pick-and-roll coverage and had some bright moments defensively, Horford has contributed very little on the other end of the floor through the series’ first three games. On Friday, he scored six points on 1 for 5 shooting, grabbed 10 rebounds and had no assists.

So, why did Horford both start and close the game?


“Just the importance of this game, the magnitude of this game,” Brown said. “A little bit (him playing his) former team. Mostly just the moment. He’s been in the playoffs for 12 years. He’s Al Horford. There’s a physicality that I know and knew he would bring to the table. And I just trusted his resume, I trusted the fact that he was going to come with an adult mind and a physical presence. It didn’t take a lot of thought, truly, to go through after you watch the series and so on.

“For me, it was kind of inevitable. You get to this situation, Game 3 … if we’re going down, I’m going down with him. I thought that defensively, he was very good.

If we’re going down, I’m going down with him.

Unless they become the first NBA team to ever come back to win a series after trailing 3-0, this is a first-round loss. Horford embodied GM Elton Brand and the front office’s desire to embrace good, old-fashioned “bully ball” way back when Brown was hoping for a No. 1 seed, and it looks like he’ll be in the starting lineup when it’s all over.

Of course, the Sixers aren’t going to cede that the end is close. Brown took the same stance when asked whether he thinks about his future and job status.

“I don’t,” he said. “I really don’t. I understand the circumstance. My job is to focus on what I really can do. My players deserve that. I’ve been in this city seven years. Tonight’s loss is what’s most on my mind. My effort is truly to try to find a way to win and keep this series alive and do my job for my players.”