ATLANTA — Al Horford got right in Paul Pierce’s face, then hopped away to the Hawks bench.
The Boston star wasn’t too thrilled with the rookie’s bravado. Pierce flashed a hand gesture toward Horford and attempted to stare him down.
Did Horford back off? Hardly.
The Atlanta center thumped his chest and yelled back at Pierce, who was finally dragged back to the Celtics bench.
"It’s an emotional game. It’s something that kind of just happens in the moment," Horford said Sunday. "It’s the first time I’ve done it. It was spontaneous."
He’s not making any apologies, though, and the Hawks can only hope Horford stays in the moment. The grit, leadership and emotion shown by the former Florida standout is at least giving Atlanta a glimmer of hope in their opening-round playoff series against the mighty Celtics.
Horford was a force in Atlanta’s Game 3 upset of Boston, scoring 17 points, grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds and doling out six assists. He’ll need to keep it up Monday night when the Hawks try to even the best-of-seven series at two games apiece.
If nothing else, Horford sure doesn’t look like a rookie.
"That kind of goes out the window, the rookie stuff," he said. "I’m here. I’m here to win. I want our team to win. I just felt I had to do something to try to help us win."
The Celtics have sure taken note of Horford’s impact. He’s averaging 15.3 points, 11 rebounds and 3.7 assists through the first three games.
After sitting through a longer-than-usual film session with the rest of his teammates in a ballroom at their midtown Atlanta hotel, Pierce shrugged off Horford’s antics.
"He’s a young player," Pierce said. "He’s getting caught up in the moment. We’re just moving on. Game 4 is next. "
Boston is still the team to beat in this series, despite its 102-93 loss Saturday night. The Celtics had the league’s best record during the regular season (66-16), finished 29 games ahead of the Hawks in the Eastern Conference and have the home-court advantage.
But Horford, who played on two straight national championship teams at Florida, has at least brought a winning edge to a team that went nine years without making the playoffs.
"We’re out there having a great time, man," said Joe Johnson, who’s supposed to be the star of the Hawks. "We’re just having fun. "
For Horford, the emotional outbursts seem a bit out of character from his college days. He usually took a back seat to two of his Florida teammates, Joakim Noah and Cory Brewer, simply doing his job and letting others do the jawing.
"Cory and Joakim, they did a lot of talking," Horford recalled. "I was the one who was always more laid back, the one who cooled everybody down and kept everyone together."
But the NBA’s youngest playoff team doesn’t know much about winning, so Horford has taken on a more vocal role. He certainly pulled a veteran move before Game 3, showing his teammates a video of Muhammad Ali’s upset win over George Foreman in 1974, the famous "Rumble in the Jungle."
Then he backed it up on the court, staring down the Celtics after they won the first two games in Boston by an average of 21 points.
"When guys are coming at you, thinking you’re going to back down, I have to let them know I’m not going to," Horford said. "That’s not how I roll."
The Celtics can put themselves in position to wrap up the series at home by winning Game 4, but they must play with more passion — especially at the defensive end. Josh Smith had five dunks on Saturday, which fired up the sellout crowd, which in turn gave the Hawks a huge emotional boost after their discouraging effort in Boston.
"We had a slight coolness about us. They were able to get back and score easy on us," Celtics guard Ray Allen said.
Boston coach Doc Rivers made a biting commentary on his team’s effort when someone asked him what went on during the lengthy film session.
The Celtics plan to come out with a lot more intensity tonight, and they’ll no doubt take a few verbal jabs at Horford.
Bring it on, the rookie replied.
"They’ve been talking since Game 1," Horford said. "And we’ve been talking back.