Al Horford’s game never jumps off the sports page. In the Celtics’ 107-97 win against the Rockets, he scored a modest 17 points with 10 rebounds in thirty minutes of play. Jayson Tatum’s 31 and Grant Williams 5-for-7 from behind the arc were louder during the game and in the box score.
However, it was Horford’s calming presence on the floor that helped settle the team into Boston’s first win of the season. But that’s not to say that the 15-year veteran brought an old man game to the floor. On the contrary, “he looked kinda young today,” Tatum said.
After missing the second half of training camp and the first game of the year due to a ten-day quarantine after testing positive for COVID in the preseason, Horford picked up right where he left off. He’s looked rejuvenated in his second stint with the Celtics after playing just 28 games for the Oklahoma City Thunder last season.
“(Horford) is a veteran presence and voice. They really respect him. A lot of those guys were here in his last stint. Bringing him back in to the fold has been good for us,” Udoka said. “The things he brings, not only on the court but the leadership and holding the locker room together, is valuable. On the court, he’s doing his thing as well which is great to see.”
After being on a 25-minute limit on Friday night against the Raptors, Horford was stretched out to 30 in Houston as the Celtics start to incorporate him back into the rotation after a lengthy stretch away from the team. Starting alongside Robert Williams in the front court, Boston’s double big lineup has worked because of the big men’s complementary skill sets with Williams as the super freak rim roller and protector and Horford as the stretch big and positional savant on defense.
In the first week’s small sample size, Horford’s shooting hasn’t been much of a factor so far. He’s hit just one of his nine three-pointers to date, but that percentage should tick up eventually after shooting nearly 37% with the Thunder.
Where Big Al has really made a difference is on the defensive end. Against a young and athletic Rockets team, Horford notched three steals and three blocks and went to the free throw line nine times. That steady and often underappreciated production does not go unseen.
“He’s doing great. Defensively, we can switch with him or have him back in a drop coverage. He covers a lot of holes in every way, assist-wise, leadership, shooting the ball, passing, and all that,” Udoka said. “Like I said, he’s a huge complement for our guys, kind of a stabilizer for our guys, kind of a glue guy for our group.”
On a team of twentysomethings, the 35-year-old has six years on the closest teammate. That’s longer than two-thirds of the Celtics roster have even played in the league. In what could be somewhat of a rocky season of change with new players, a first-time head coach, and reconfigured front office, Horford will be in the adult in the room.
When asked what he did during quarantine, he replied, “did a lot of reading, watched some shows — Better Call Saul on Netflix, the spinoff of Breaking Bad, that was cool — got to spend a lot of time in my backyard.” Big dad energy from the big man there.