MIAMI — Al Horford laughed at shootaround as the first Celtics back-to-back looms against the Heat and Magic in Florida on Friday and Saturday. Reports from the offseason indicated the big man would take on a load management plan this season, something Horford refuted from the early days of camp.
“You’ve never heard me say it, right?” Horford said on Friday.
The Celtics sat Horford in April in the second half of a back-to-back against Milwaukee, along with several other starters, anticipating a long postseason run. He also rested against Indiana in February after playing the night before. Horford similarly missed games in October, November and December, before a five-game hiatus in COVID protocol rounded out his absences in a year where he logged 2,005 minutes in the regular season before 815 more in the postseason. That all amounted to one night off each month for the veteran.
This offseason prepared Horford to take on a larger role, though, all the more important given Robert Williams III’s injury and some of the uncertainty surrounding the front court rotation behind him. Horford didn’t rule out taking rest nights during 2022-23, but it isn’t something he’s focused on, feeling good after playing 23 minutes on opening night.
“I kind of prepared myself to be in this position and I’ll just take it as it goes,” Horford said. “The good thing about our group is that we do have depth, we have a good group and I’m not saying I’m completely opposed to sitting out, but I’ll be fine and I’ll be good to go. I’m being consistent, I’m getting after it. I feel good. I’m being able to get out there and play and doing the things I need to do. It’s all about preparation. It’s a mindset.”
Horford intends to play in Orlando tomorrow night, while noting he’s taking those decisions one game at a time and emphasized the importance of tonight’s matchup against Miami. The Magic, while young and ascending, don’t project to become an eastern conference contender alongside the Celtics.
Joe Mazzulla is trusting Horford to provide feedback to establish any level of management needed, whether in-game or between nights. Horford interacted with Mazzulla from the floor during the preseason finale in Montreal, at one point calling off Sam Hauser as he prepared to substitute in for him before asking out of the game moments later.
“Al’s great. Al has a plan, he wants to win, he knows what’s best for the team, he knows what’s best for himself and he always puts the team first,” Mazzulla told CelticsBlog/CLNS Media. “So we’ll always communicate on where he’s at, but we’ll trust him and we’ll work on that together.”
Noah Vonleh appeared as Horford’s primary backup after he faced foul trouble on opening night. Grant Williams is in the mix, with the ability to guard fives and a new head coach willing to play smaller and put him in those positions.
Other big men on the roster like Blake Griffin and Mfiondu Kabengele have steps to take defensively, while Luke Kornet didn’t play in the preseason or on opening night after suffering an ankle injury in training camp. That was a coach’s decision, Mazzulla saying Boston can and will play several styles of basketball this year. Pace is a priority now.
Williams III remains on track to return to basketball activities in 8-12 weeks, Brad Stevens said on 98.5 The Sports Hub, after receiving a PRP injection in the knee he tore his meniscus in and recently underwent a cleanup surgery on. All those developments left a heavy burden on Horford. One he’s willing to embrace in pursuit of his first championship.
“I feel fine,” Horford said. “Our medical staff has done a great job with me, managing and feeling things out. If we feel at any point that we need to reevaluate some things, we do, but honestly, they kept me running all of last year and this year I don’t expect it to be any different ... my focus is on Miami tonight. This is a big game for us.”