With 6.1 seconds left in regulation, the 76ers had a chance to steal a win in TD Garden last night. Before the inbounds pass, Al Horford stuck close to former teammate Joel Embiid until he was forced to switch onto Tobias Harris. The quicker Harris failed to drive around the 35-year-old, eventually kicking it out to Georges Niang for a deflected three pointer.
Robert Williams will be credited for the game-saving block and rightly so, but it’s the play of the 15-year veteran — last night and throughout the regular season — that has made all the difference.
In Wednesday’s 88-87 slugfest of a win against the Sixers, Horford tallied 10 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 blocks. A solid night for the veteran, but a box score that doesn’t nearly encapsulate the totality of his contributions. You’d have to have consider his consistent mastery of defending Embiid too, who finished the night 3-for-17 from the field.
Even still, it’s just one game and while it’s just a single hash mark on the winning side of the ledger, some wins just matter more. After the game, head coach Ime Udoka acknowledged the importance of the win considering that he, Josh Richardson, and Horford spent a season together in Philadelphia just two years ago.
But for Horford, it might even be sweeter still. In his first stint in Boston, he handled Joel Embiid for three seasons straight, including a gentlemen’s sweep of the divisional rival in the second round in 2018. That’s why Horford’s departure to Philadelphia for a four-year, $109 million deal the following summer was so heartbreaking; not only were the Celtics losing their Embiid stopper, but he was leaving to join forces with him.
Alas, it didn’t work out. Spacing issues with Embiid and Ben Simmons made Horford the odd man out and Philadelphia’s play style never truly suited Horford’s strengths.
“He just never found his footing when I was there. I don’t think we used him properly with some of the matchups he had there,” Udoka said. “But at the same time, when you got guys like Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid in the post and in certain areas, they’re taking away a lot of his space, so he’s kinda standing around at times.”
Last season, Horford was dealt to Oklahoma City. In just over a year, he went from competing for a title to salary ballast.
“I’m very grateful because my faith kept me strong through all that time. It was a very low point for me in the beginning when it all went down, looking at having to go to Oklahoma City, what now with me in my 14th year,” Horford said. “I really looked at it at that point as an opportunity for me to get better, to prove myself, to prove to people what I can do. That year was a difficult year for me in Philly. There’s no question about it. And for me, I could either cave in or make the most out of this opportunity.”
Horford would only suit up for the Thunder for twenty-eight games before coming to an agreement with OKC management to sit out until the front office could work out a deal to move him elsewhere. But even in that brief time on a rebuilding team, Horford became Horford again.
“He’s a prideful guy. None of us loved the way it went down for him in Philadelphia and the team in general, but you saw the flashes from him in Oklahoma City. He was a different player and back to himself,” Udoka said. Horford shot 37% from behind the arc and returned to a familiar role as a stretch 5. That rehabilitation would catch the eye of Brad Stevens, his former head coach turned President of Basketball Operations in Boston, and the Celtics quickly made a trade to bring him back.
“As I mentioned in training camp, he was extra motivated, came in in great shape, and he’s carried that throughout the year and done whatever we’ve asked,” Udoka said of the elder statesman’s effect on this relatively young team. “He’s played multiple positions and guarded several ways. He’s a prideful guy like I said — one stop, one blip on the radar doesn’t really define his whole career and what’s he’s done and I think he’s showing who he really is.”
For Horford, his latest stop at North Station is something he doesn’t take for granted. Back in 2019, whether it was because the Celtics came to him with a lower offer, the chemistry issues in the locker room, and/or the uncertainty of the team’s roster, his decision to leave Boston lead to the circuitous route for his return two years later.
“Everything was on me. It was my decision to leave. And through all these things, it was like, ‘how are you going to respond?’ after you’ve been faced with adversity, being down, being talked down about and all these things. It’s a reality. You have to put results and you have to do certain things and I didn’t do that (in Philadelphia),” Horford said. “I’m sure I was written off. I’m just glad that I got another opportunity in a place where I want to be.”
By all accounts, the Celtics want him in Boston, too. When asked about why his pairing with Robert Williams works so well, Horford replied, “Rob is a very smart player. He knows how to play. He knows how to find his way on the court. I feel like he’s very easy to play with.” You have to imagine that every Celtic to a man would say the same about him.