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No hitting rookie wall for Horford

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / May 1, 2008

Al Horford stuck the signed David Ortiz jersey at the top of his locker and let it hang so everybody could see the scribbled cursive swirls.

"To my boy Al Horford . . . Go and Get them . . . 34."

In this short swing through Boston, Horford had dinner with Ortiz, a fellow Dominican.

He calls the man "Papi" the way LeBron James call Jay-Z "Hov."

And now he's in the Atlanta Hawks' locker room hoisting the most popular jersey in town like it was the American flag over Iwo Jima.

Josh Smith, who was sitting within glancing distance of the jersey, figured it could have been worse. "It's not like it's a Celtics jersey," he said.

With Horford reportedly finishing second in rookie of the year voting behind Seattle's Kevin Durant, he's apparently running close to Ortiz in popularity contests around the Dominican Republic.

"Papi's big in the Dominican," Smith said. "And Al's getting big in the Dominican."

Big enough to maybe persuade one of Boston's most visible Celtics fans to defect - for a week and a half, at least.

"All I know is that we're both Dominican and we both got each other's back," Horford said.

Horford's scoring numbers were nowhere near the 20.3 points Durant averaged. But he averaged nearly a double-double (10.1 points, 9.7 rebounds) for the Hawks, played wherever coach Mike Woodson put him, even it meant being overmatched, and pushed the Hawks to the playoffs.

"I'm not taking anything away from Durant," Woodson said. "I respect Durant and what he's done this year in our league. He's a great talent. But you can't exclude Al Horford. They should have shared it, I think. If not Al getting it."

Horford took nothing away from Durant. In fact, as soon as he heard the results (which haven't been officially announced), he sent the league's top rookie a message.

"It was a deserved award," Horford said. "I feel like Kevin's been consistent the entire year just like I have. The first thing I did was text him and congratulate him. It's something that's well deserved and I'm happy for him."

Woodson has seen a ton of rookies come through - including Josh Childress, Smith, and Marvin Williams. And it's not that those guys weren't effective. But Horford is a little different.

"I've had so many rookies," Woodson said. "All the rookies I've had have hit a wall during some period of the season. And this young man never hit a wall, which is amazing to me. I mean, he's been a double-double guy. He's anchored our defense, he's helped us get into the playoffs."

That said, the kid's not Superman. But if he did hit a wall, Smith said, he pushed through it.

"He might have been a little fatigued," Smith said. "Everybody gets a little fatigued, but he brushed right through it. He played and we rode him as our center even though he was undersized every night. He didn't make that an issue."

In some ways - namely the way he jawed at Paul Pierce after hitting a jumper at the end of Game 3 - he's added grit to the team that's trickled down.

"He does bring an added toughness to our team and we're riding with it," Smith said.

That moment with Pierce led to the moment between Zaza Pachulia and Kevin Garnett in Game 4, which led to the Hawks developing a sort of cockiness, which is what a young team needs.

"Especially in the playoffs," Horford said. "Tension goes up and it's one of those things where you can't back down. I'm not saying I'm tougher than anyone or I'm whatever, but I tell you what, when it comes down to it, we're going to grind. We're going to war out there."

And even though the award eluded him, he's happier because his team is in the playoffs.

"I've always been about the team," he said. "We have a chance to do something big and that's what I'm focused on right now."

As for that jersey, Ortiz failed to mention that the last time one of his jerseys was in the spotlight, it was for spreading bad luck. Horford paid that incident little mind.

"Well," he said, "it might be good luck for us."

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