Coming into the NBA season, some wondered just how good the Celtics could be. Did they have enough to compete for a championship? Would they be the ones to finally dethrone LeBron in the East? And how well would their three All-Stars play together? As it turns out all that hype was built up only to come tumbling down and now as the Celtics head into the 2nd round, only one of those All-Stars remains: Al Horford.
Horford was saddled with the tall task of carrying a team of young and unproven players past a Milwaukee deep dripping with talent, including a likely top 5 finisher in MVP voting in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Horford even played in lineups that featured him playing with Semi Ojeleye, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier, four players who are still on their rookie contracts. When asked about that and his leadership role amongst the much younger players after the game, Al simply said, “It’s what I’ve been doing all year.”
It’s one of the many things Al’s been doing all year.
The criticisms of Horford are clear. He hasn't rebounded like a center and he hasn't scored like a max player since signing his four-year, $113 million dollar deal with Celtics. His numbers have led to constant bashing of Horford claiming he's overpaid and the Celtics made a mistake by signing him from what seems like half the Celtics fandom. Horford may well be the most divisive player on the Celtics roster amongst fans, which is ironic considering how Horford facilitates such great continuity within the Celtics locker room.
Scoring is a virtue of opportunity. To score, you need to shoot and often in the Celtics offensive system the plays are not drawn up for Al Horford to shoot. Horford's role in the offense from day one has been clear: make plays for others with his unique passing ability, space the floor with his newfound range, and set good screens for his teammates. Horford hasn't faltered in those areas much if at all throughout his career in Boston. If the reason Horford wasn’t scoring was because he went out every night and shot a percentage similar to that of Marcus Smart that'd be one thing, but Horford was top 10 in three point percentage this year and 27th in effective field goal percentage.
Horford doesn't look to score because he isn't asked to. He’s a coachable player, which normally is a trait that's well liked, but in Horford's case it's what fuels the arguments of those who disparage him. There was a reason Horford was an All-Star this year. What he does is a sacrifice. In a league where all that's talked about are the players who put up the biggest numbers, Al does what is asked of him, even when it’s not to score and that sacrifice is something that isn’t appreciated the way you’d think in a region that embraces the motto “Do your job”.
It became clear to everybody with the Bucks series that when Horford wants to score, he can. Those who picked against the Celtics knew that they wouldn’t have a problem on defense, Rozier may even be an upgrade from Kyrie for the Celtics top ranked defense, but the question was who would score. The answer was Al Horford. Horford averaged 18.1 ppg and 8.7 rpg in the first round against the Bucks (22 ppg and 9.8 rpg in wins) all while being the most used defender on aforementioned MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo. In game 7 facing elimination, Al put up 26 points on 13-17 (77%) shooting, providing the proof some needed that he was worth every penny of his max contract.
Brad Stevens never hesitates to mention Al Horford’s importance to the team when asked, like he was after game 7. “He’s been a stabilizing force since he walked in our locker room. I think that’s the best way to phrase it with Al. He provides stability for all of us. Whenever you’ve lost other guys to injury, when people aren't available, when things aren’t going your way, he’s likely been through it and he provides a very calming influence to the younger players.”
Beating a fully loaded and rested 76ers team won’t be easy for the Celtics, but if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that Al Horford will do his job. As long as Al’s still standing, the Celtics always have a chance.
Photo: (Jim Davis - Boston Globe)