Al Horford drew as much laughter as he did applause when coaches selected him to represent the Celtics alongside Kyrie Irving at All-Star Weekend. He earned a spot there two and three years prior, so his selection came as no surprise. Only this time, the teams were selected in a fantasy draft.
Irving joined LeBron James early, an easy choice according to James. Though it wasn’t initially released, everybody knew who one of the last two picks would be. Horford became akin to the last kid picked on the playground, joining Steph Curry’s team. Some onlookers laughed, imagining the game’s flashiest players throwing down monster dunks off the backboard while Horford set screens.
Joel Embiid rolled to 19 points and eight rebounds in the exhibition, playing most of the Team Curry minutes at center while Horford put up six in 13 minutes off the bench. That brand of basketball stood far from where Horford’s thrived most in Boston. Almost three months later, Horford capped his 101st postseason game on the other side of the country, scorching by Embiid as the seconds ticked away on the final five minutes. Horford took full advantage of Embiid and his five fouls to lead a second straight win for Boston.
Many factors separate Embiid and Horford; flashiness, outspokenness, a few inches of height and certainly nicknames, but the biggest difference shown through this series through two games is the 94-game postseason experience gap.
“The matchup with Al is a tough one for us and for most of the league,” Brett Brown said after the 76ers fell back 0-2 in the series.
The glowing praise contradicted the sharp criticism Horford received from fans pressing him to do more. Following his trip to Los Angeles, his shooting percentage dipped to 42 over the seven ensuing games and his strong rebounding start dropped into the 6 per game range that once elicited videos of him ducking from rebounds that he ultimately revealed is an in-game joke.
That stretch ended with a 20-point performance against Minnesota. But as his struggles appeared to end, he woke up on the faithful morning of March 11 with a fever and an aching body. He pressed to play, but Brad Stevens said to stay home. That night, the Celtics lost Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis for the season due to three separate injuries that required surgery. Only Smart returned in the playoffs.
Horford’s lull continued out of that night, as he adapted to what would become a larger scoring burden placed on his back come playoff time with his fellow All-Stars out. But as a series with the Bucks loomed after he posted averages 12 points, six rebounds and three assists over his last 11 games of the regular season on 42 percent shooting, it became easy to forget the undermanned Celtics still boasted a healthy All-Star.
Coasting may not be the right word, but at 31-years-old and over 700 games into his career, it became clear that as Boston became locked in as the two seed, Horford had greater ambitions in mind. He could not afford to sit many nights with injuries popping up all around him, and without definitive rotations set he had to be involved to establish chemistry with an ever-growing array of lineups.
Horford on idea teams might be hoping to get the 7 seed to play them now: “The only thing I can say to that is I can’t wait until the playoffs start.”— Adam Himmelsbach (@AdamHimmelsbach) April 7, 2018
A different Horford emerged in the first round against the Bucks. Pressed with helping routinely on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s drives, he still powered through 35 minutes per night and endeavored back to the paint where he scored aggressively and efficiently. His first masterpiece in Game One featured 14 free throw attempts in a 24-point, 12-rebound and four-assist slashing of Milwaukee’s interior. He hadn’t gone to the line that many times since 2013, when he was a Hawk against the Celtics. With so many responsibilities, it became clear why he could have been saving before.
The dominance he displayed in the first round mirrored his first series in green a year prior against the Bulls. In six games in that series he averaged 15 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists while posting a ridiculous 60/54/84 shooting split from the field, three-point and free throw lines.
In seven against the Bucks, he returned to “Playoff Horford” with 18 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists on 59/44/76 shooting. With Boston’s season on the line in a Game 7 at home, he led the Celts’ scoring attack with 26 in one of his best games with the team.
Thon Maker, who changed the tone of the series early with defensive brilliance inside, faced ruthless switches onto Horford along the three-point line, where he would end up chasing Horford to the rim. Even on the interior he watched shots float over his head into the net. That would be the pain Embiid awaited in Round Two.
No answer proved able to slow him in the two games he led the Celt into as underdogs out of the locker room. With no Jaylen Brown, 17 percent of their first-round scoring, he went to work on Embiid with a fadeaway seven-footer, then switched and dunked through Marco Belinelli with ease. Amir Johnson could not stay in front of him on slips to the rim and breaking into some pick-and-roll action on the ball with Jayson Tatum, Horford fed him wide open on rim runs multiple times. In the third quarter, before Tatum even seemed to know, Horford hauled in a rebound and, in one fluid motion, heaved the ball across the entire court for him to dunk in rhythm.
As the game slipped out of reach, Horford slammed the door by slipping away on the right baseline while Terry Rozier drove into Ben Simmons and an untimely collapse off Horford by Embiid. Horford could have taken all day to knock down the 15-footer while everybody stood watching.
But the seminal moment of Horford’s incredible postseason run came with five minutes remaining in Game 2. Philadelphia led 93-91 and Horford isolated Embiid along the right elbow, blowing by him on the first step as slight contact sent Horford flying to the ground. Embiid picked up his fifth foul and sent the Celtics into the bonus to tie the game.
Embiid laughed next with a 12-foot, step-back make but in the final minutes he became more of a sitting duck in the paint than any moment in the series prior. After Marcus Morris bailed out a bad possession with an offensive rebound and three, Horford slashed right at Embiid on the drive and as the defense collapsed he hit Rozier on a dime for a three on the left wing.
On the next possession, he broke into a series of passes along the top of the post with Marcus Smart, before he worked Rozier around Embiid and fed him toward the rim just ahead of Philly’s seven-foot shot-blocker.
A pair of layups inside gave the 76ers a chance down three with 30 seconds remaining. Brett Brown refused to foul, as all his time ticked away and with the shot clock running down Horford left Embiid in the dust on his way to the rim and Philadelphia with a 2-0 lead.
Few fundamentals matter in the All-Star game, but in the postseason every weakness is exploited by savvy veterans and Horford’s reminded everyone why he was in LA despite his lack of flare. He’s taken complete advantage of a player who will be a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year.