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The quiet brilliance of Al Horford

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Al Horford’s versatility fuels the Celtics.

NBA: Boston Celtics at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

When the Golden State Warriors came to town two weeks ago, head coach Steve Kerr called Al Horford a “perfect modern day center” before they faced off with the Boston Celtics on January 26th.

“He can protect the rim, he can run dribble hand-offs, and step out to the three point line, and can put the ball on the floor,” said Kerr. “He’s a really good passer, so that means you have to guard the entire floor and there’s nobody to cheat off of.”

Kerr went on to say that he views Horford as the “hub of the wheel” in Boston, and he’s right. A majority of the Celtics’ offense revolves around the 32-year-old big man’s versatility.

Since January 1, Horford has been nearly perfect for Brad Stevens and the Celtics, scoring in double-figures in all but three games. The 32-year-old is shooting 60 percent over that 17-game span, averaging a line of 13.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 1.5 blocks. Horford also hasn’t missed a free throw in his last 21 games. He’s missed just one from the charity stripe since Thanksgiving.

So yeah, Horford’s numbers are great across the board. His skillset creates so much flexibility for Stevens on both sides of the ball, thanks to his multidimensional play and elite footwork. The Celtics win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday was a good peek into what Horford brings to the table, especially when facing someone as tough as Steven Adams.

One of Horford’s greatest strengths is his ability to stretch the floor. Steven Adams is an old-school big in a league who plays a very physical interior game. He dominates the boards on a regular basis, averaging 9.9 rebounds per game, while also headlining one of the NBA’s top defenses, but a matchup with Horford creates some issues for OKC’s style, because of how easily he can draw Adams away from the hoop.

Here’s Horford in a light pick-and-roll set along the perimeter with Kyrie Irving. Horford excels around 18-feet, while Adams is clearly uncomfortable out there. This set opens up a world of options for Boston on the offensive side of the ball, now that Adams needs to be concerned with Horford’s outside game. It’s the equivalent to getting the run game going in football. Once that’s established, it opens up the play-action, plus the entire passing game, because the defense always has to be worried about the run. In the same vein, NBA front courts always have to be worried about Horford sitting along the arc.

Now Adams bites on the pick-and-pop, which leads Horford to wisely pump fake and head to the basket. He can score off the dribble, so Russell Westbrook has to play help defense, allowing Horford to kick it out to a now wide open Irving, who knocks down the three. Horford is so effective in cutting to the basket and passing off the dribble that these sets create a pick-your-poison type for defenders.

Here’s another great set where Horford used his outside presence and footwork to keep opponents off balance. Draymond Green goes over the top of Horford’s bluff-screen, while DeMarcus Cousins also stays high to stick with Irving. He reads the perimeter defense, slips into the paint, and Irving hits him with the pass for the easy dunk. Horford’s IQ, quick decision making, and outside prowess are a lethal combination in these kind of scenarios. Irving takes full advantage of this any chance he gets.

Just like each of the previous highlights, Horford uses some two-man action here to create space for himself or a teammate. With Marcus Smart as the primary ball-handler, the Celtics run a foul line pick-and-pop against Steph Curry and Kevon Looney. Despite Smart not using the brief pick opportunity, Looney still has to hedge towards the ball, which allows just enough space for Horford to get off the 15-footer. It’s amazing how little room the Florida product needs to score just outside the paint, which is why he’s so difficult to defend.

Against the Warriors elite defensive schemes, Horford went 10-for-15 from the floor with 22 points and 13 rebounds. He used his multidimensional skillset to go after Cousins, just like he did on Sunday against Adams and the Thunder, causing the All-Star center to fall out of rhythm and into early foul trouble.

Horford doesn’t need to solely rely on his perimeter game to open up the floor. He’s shown flashes of his own muscle throughout this season on both sides of the ball (insert Al Horford flex gif here), but that portion of his game was extremely prevalent against the Brooklyn Nets last week. Horford finished with eleven rebounds and six blocks.

Here’s Horford running the floor with Rodions Kurucs in transition and sticking with him for one of his six blocks. He’s able to take advantage of his body control and avoid fouling Kurucs, while also staying right with him as he takes on the small amount of contact before swatting the layup away.

On both sides of the ball, Horford opens up so many options for Stevens and the rest of the Celtics coaching staff. Defenders can’t give him space because he’ll knock down a 18-foot jumper, but if they play up on him, he’ll put the ball on the floor to beat you to the rim. His high two-man game with a primary ball-handler keeps opposing big men off balance, while also dragging them away from the basket. Horford’s IQ and footwork make him one of the smartest all-around players in the game, and that alone allows him to give the Celtics tremendous upside. He may not have the flashy highlights that Kyrie Irving does, but don’t take Al Horford’s skillset for granted, because it’s equally as important to Boston’s success.