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Al Horford’s absence will show his importance to the Celtics

Horford took an elbow to the head in Monday’s win and will enter the NBA’s concussion protocol. Exactly one year ago he sat out nine games due to a concussion. His absence now becomes a significant point of concern.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics built a miraculous base for their season through 11 games. Nine straight wins later, Al Horford stood as a driving point. His stat-line touches every area, 14.6 points, 9.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per-game. He’s shooting 53 percent with a 97 defensive rating, the best of his career. Now he’s out of the picture for the moment.

Going forward for an unknown amount of time, the team will be without its glue, and that’s a concern. Horford entered the NBA’s concussion protocol today, a rightfully cautious move especially considering he was in the midst of a nine-game absence exactly one year ago with a concussion.

Beyond the fact that Boston entered the season with a thin front court—Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis are the only other two bigs with more than 10 minutes per game—Horford consolidated all the team’s efforts. For now, there will be no more easy points coming on plays like this.

Horford was the team’s leading rebounder, a pick-and-roll presence who could pass, dribble, shoot and roll off screens at high levels. Not average.

For Kyrie Irving, in the midst of a career revelation, that meant more space and ability to get off the ball. Even with Gordon Hayward down, the Horford’s presence made it difficult to send extra pressure at Irving.

The 18-point comeback win over the Thunder that kept this win streak alive is a prime example. When the game was still in doubt, Horford hit a deep two off the two-man passing game above the arc with Irving.

At 79-79, he screened Irving on the wing, broke to the corner as Steven Adams shifted toward the rim, and hit from three. He set the screen on Russell Westbrook that initiated Irving’s five-point play. Up four, he sealed the game by breaking to and hitting from the corner as Adams chased to help in the paint again on Irving’s drive. He converted five critical shots in the final seven minutes.

The Celtics will not have that against the Lakers and for however long this concussion recovery process lasts. It occurred in the second quarter, per the team, on this play when Kent Bazemore struck Horford in the back of the head while contesting his shot.

No concussion is good, but consecutive head injuries in the span of a year are significantly scarier. Horford suffered a concussion at a Halloween practice nearly one year ago to this day. He made progress, then the symptoms took a turn for the worst.

In Adam Himmelsbach’s story recounting the recovery process, Horford felt “woozy” after practice despite days of feeling fine after the blow. Similarly, the Celtics announced he woke up with symptoms today, which prompted the protocol two days after the blow occurred.

As Horford pushed back early last season, continuing to be sensitive to the lights in the stadium and watching games in a dark room with sunglasses, the Celts went 4-5 in his absence.

Himmelsbach added, “Horford had headaches and nausea, and he was bothered by light, noise, and motion. For Horford, the experience was especially concerning because he had no point of reference. He said he took a similar shot to the head in high school and had concussion like symptoms, but was fine the next day. The same thing happened about four years ago, when he played for the Atlanta Hawks.”

His path back remains uncertain, with the Cs monitoring symptoms and conducting tests as the days go by. As last time showed, what looks like a short time off could quickly transform into weeks, especially with a history.

In his absence the team can go small and likely will, rotating Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris and Semi Ojeleye at the four with sets of three guards. Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier are capable ball-handlers that can also rebound, but what helps Boston most when they go small is Horford’s ability to stretch and pass from the center position. It’s not the same with Baynes and Theis.

Horford’s absence will be glaring going forward, and the difficult process of playing though it begins tonight on ESPN against the Lonzo Ball and the Lakers.