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Why it’s ridiculous to panic over Al Horford

Big man carried Celtics at big moments in ‘17 playoffs and will again.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

ELAX! Al Horford is going to be just fine.

The panic and hand-wringing that ensued over Horford’s 5-game swoon is laughable and downright absurd.

Through his first 54 games, Horford was averaging 13.3 points a game, bringing down 7.7 rebounds and dishing 5.1 assists and playing at a superior level defensively. He was averaging 50.8 percent from the field and 43.6 percent from 3-point range.

He was not just an All-Star. When you account for team-leading field goal percentage, he was the second-most productive player on a team that was 40-19 headed into the All-Star break. As critical as Marcus Smart is to Brad Stevens’ defensive schemes and rotations, he comes off the bench. Horford, a starter, is perennially one of the best big defenders in the game.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

In the first five games after the break, Horford’s numbers took a dive. He averaged just 7.2 points a game. But the Celtics, playing inferior competition, managed to easily handle their opposition, winning four straight before a near-miss in Houston Saturday night.

Consider, in those four wins, Horford’s plus-minus was plus-12, plus-13, even and plus-27. Against Houston, he was a minus-22 in the same game Kyrie Irving was a minus-17.

What you’re looking for in Horford - beyond the obvious production on the court - is leadership and ownership.

”I think personally I’m not playing at the level that I want to be playing at and doing the things that I can,” Horford told reporters before Monday night’s game in Chicago. “And through all that, I always have to make sure that I stay consistent in what I do and bring to the team, especially on the defensive end.”

Good thing that someone has their head screwed on straight. And good thing Horford recognizes the outside commotion for what it is - motivation to stay on course.

Monday night, one game after arguably one of his worst games with the Celtics, Horford delivered one of the most efficient games. In just 22 minutes, he was 6-of-8 from the field, grabbed seven rebounds, collected two assists and tallied a steal and a block. Without the resting Kyrie Irving, he had 13 points (passing 10,000 career points in the process) but was a team-leading plus-31 in a 105-89 laugher over the Bulls in Chicago.

Remember before the All-Star break when the Celtics were banged up and looking for bodies anywhere they could find them? Remember when the Celtics were without Marcus Smart, Shane Larkin and Irving? Who stepped up and played point-forward when Terry Rozier wasn’t on the floor?

Still, one bad game from the man who signed a four-year, $113 million deal in the summer of 2016 throws New England into apoplectic shock. What’s wrong with the 31-year-old Horford? Is he too old? Are his knees banged up? What happens come playoffs?

Well, what did happen last year in the playoffs? If it weren’t for the superhuman performance of Isaiah Thomas against the Wizards in the second round, the focus would’ve been on Horford, clearly the best all-around player on the Celtics in their postseason run.

In 18 starts, he averaged 15.1 points per game, shot a blistering 58.4 percent from the field, including a remarkable 51.9 percent from beyond the arc. He averaged 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists in Boston’s playoff season. When the Celtics needed him the most, he was there. Down 0-2 in Chicago, Horford dominated with 18 points and eight rebounds in Boston’s series-changing 17-point win in Game 3. Against Washington in Games 1 and 2, he helped the Celtics erase huge first-half deficits, averaging 18 points on 16-of-22 shooting from the field with 21 rebounds and 13 assists.

Then in Game 5 against Washington, with the series tied 2-2, he offered his virtuoso of the playoffs. He was 8-of-9 from the field, 3-of-4 from deep, six rebounds, seven assists and three blocks in a 22-point win.

The point of all of this is to remind Celtics fans that Horford is STILL the second-most important player on the court behind Kyrie Irving. Without him, the Celtics are not going anywhere in the postseason.

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