They say Father Time is undefeated, but right now, Al Horford can still take him into the post and defend him on the perimeter.
Judging by his performance against a much younger Memphis team, there’s plenty of life left in the Boston Celtics’ elder statesman. There might be the occasional load management here and there, but when the return is the type of performance Al Horford gave you against the Grizzlies, it’s a price you’re willing to pay.
“Al’s the OG. You know, everybody thinks Al is getting up there in age, that he’s lost it, but he’s still got it. And we love him for it,” Marcus Smart said when asked about Horford’s defense against one of the best offenses in the league.
It’s about time we look past those lofty contract numbers and consign the “Average Al” moniker to the trash can. There’s nothing average about what Horford has brought to the Celtics this year, just understated.
For all the talk about throwback centers being a thing of the past, and big men needing to offer more than a physical presence and low-post game, Horford has found the perfect balance. One minute he’s cooking you with old school post moves and the next, he’s dropping a three in your face from the perimeter.
A quick “punch” (a common name for post-up) from Al Horford sees him get a mismatch on Morant, little spin, old-man layup. Sometimes, simplicity is best.
When it comes to intelligent offense, Horford is usually going to sit close to the top of that list. He’s rarely going to get your pulse racing, but his movement, screening, secondary creation, and ability to orchestrate plays as an on-court coach ensure the Celtics are always ready for someone to pop off for a quick run.
All Horford does here is set a screen. It’s not a particularly special screen, nor is it a memorable one. But the screen is an early read by Horford, who is looking to cause confusion on the perimeter and lull the defense into thinking either Tatum is going to come over the top, or Marcus Smart is going to relocate. Neither happens, but a skip pass from the All-Star wing finds Smart and his defender is on an island because he fell into Horford’s trap.
Here’s another play where Horford’s movements are minimal, but the outcome is desirable. As Derrick White drives into the paint and forces the defense to collapse, Horford is stalking the action in the strong side corner, slowly lifting towards the wing. The play ends in the veteran big man bricking a catch-and-shoot three, but it was his original movement that created the passing lane for the shot in the first place, and that type of heads up offense is what was missing from the Celtics play last season and during the earlier months of this one, too.
Horford is helping on the defensive end too, his ability to guard small on the perimeter, operate in drop, switch, pre-switch (soft switch), and orchestrate the defensive positioning are all vital aspects to Ime Udoka’s system. That’s why against the Grizzlies, Horford contested more shots on the perimeter (10) than he did from two-point range (9). Versatility is a core concept of the team Brad Stevens is building right now, and Horford fits the bill perfectly.
Desmond Bane is no slouch. As the Grizzlies' core three-point threat, the second-year sharpshooter is often the beneficiary of kick-outs from a Morant drive or Jaren Jackson Jr. post-up. But, in the above clip, Horford does a fantastic job of hanging with a guy 12 years his junior, cutting off the middle of the floor, and relocating back onto the perimeter to successfully contest the shot.
Let’s also take a minute to appreciate how seamlessly Horford navigated Brandon Clarke’s ghost screen. The general rule for switching on defense is to “switch on contact” and the ghost screen has no contact, and thus, you shouldn't switch (unless you’re soft switching). You can see Jayson Tatum dig towards the Bane after Clarke’s screening action, which illustrates how easy it is to get into a kerfuffle when those pesky ghost screens occur.
Beyond defensive movement and IQ, Horford also rolled the years back with a dominant rebounding performance, pulling down 15 boards against a very good rebounding Memphis team. Entering the contest against the Grizzlies, the biggest concern was limiting second-chance points and containing Morant when he drove middle - it’s safe to say the team did both of those things, and Horford was an integral piece to that puzzle.
For those who want the Celtics to shed the big man's salary during the off-season, ask yourself: who is poised to replace Horford’s leadership on the team? Who else raises their game when facing stern opposition? During the February trade deadline period, there was a lot of talk about the need for a connector, somebody who can stitch the team's offensive and defensive possessions together and act as a metronome for their teammates.
Sure, it never hurts to have multiple connectivity guys, it’s a buzzword around the NBA right now, and rightly so. But in Horford, you have the quintessential veteran presence, selfless, heady, and impactful.
He may be aging, he may no longer hit the three at the same rate as he did during his first stint with the Celtics, but Horford is still a vital member of this roster, capable of uplifting the team when they need it most. And in the closing minutes of the game against the Grizzlies, when the Celtics needed to put the contest to bed, it was Horford who put the game beyond doubt.
On Thursday night, we got a glimpse into the past, and hopefully, into the not too distant future.