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Al Horford exit interview: continued postseason brilliance

The 36-year-old elevated his game at the right time to help push the Celtics to The Finals

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Al Horford’s reunion with the Boston Celtics was, in truth, a matter of financial convenience as much as anything else. Faced with Kemba Walker’s onerous contract, newly minted President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens saw an opportunity to shed some salary and introduce some roster flexibility by linking up with the tanking Oklahoma City Thunder, sending Walker into their cap space and bringing back Horford on a shorter deal for the cost of a first-round pick.

While the Celtics undoubtedly knew Horford still had some value on the court, nobody could have anticipated just how impactful he ended up being. In a season where the Celtics surpassed all preseason expectations — or even early season ones, given their 18-21 start — perhaps no player was more of a surprise than their newly-returned elder statesman.

NBA: Finals-Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the season, defense seemed to be the area Horford would most likely regress, given his age. High quality defense can be hard to muster when your athleticism is declining, and many (myself included) expected a more diminished version of Horford on that end of the court. To the contrary, though, defense turned out to be the capstone of his contribution to the roster. These Celtics made their name on the defensive side of the ball, and Horford’s reliability as a defensive presence at the center position unlocked much of what Udoka’s system wants to do.

Horford was the biggest contrast in Boston’s two-big lineups between this season and last, as the Celtics moved on from less versatile bigs like Tristan Thompson and (eventually) Enes Freedom and found themselves more comfortably able to execute their jumbo-sized lineups. Robert Williams III covered himself in glory in a breakthrough season en route to a Second Team All-Defense selection, but it was Horford’s awareness and physicality in the paint that enabled him to thrive as a ball-hawking free safety type, instead of being bound to the paint.

Likewise, Horford’s ability to survive on switches was instrumental to Udoka’s defense; the Celtics were one of the most aggressive switching teams in the league, and that simply doesn’t work with a big like Thompson in the starting lineup.

Offensively, Horford’s regular season stats don’t jump off the page. His 10.2 points per game were the lowest mark of his career since his rookie season, and while his shooting percentage inside the arc rebounded from dismal numbers in Philadelphia and Oklahoma City (from 51% in those two seasons to 58% this year), a brutal shooting slump to open the season led to his lowest mark from deep since he began shooting threes regularly (33.6%).

But as we became accustomed to during his first stint in green, Horford elevated his game in the postseason. He held steady from two-point range (57%), but his shooting ballooned to a particularly comical 48% from behind the arc (he’s now shot 45% from three in his Celtics postseason career), and he did it while being tasked with the all-important defensive matchups against Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bam Adebayo that had caused trouble for Boston in postseasons past.

Horford’s performance in the second round against the Milwaukee Bucks may have been the best basketball he’s played in Boston, period. Not only did he rediscover his form as an Anti-Greek-Freak Device, but he did so while operating as one of the team’s most effective complementary scorers, rebounders and playmakers. In Game 4, he took that a step even further, setting a new personal playoff career-high with 30 points in a performance most memorable for a scuffle with Antetokounmpo that resolved with a thundering dunk early in the fourth quarter.

Not counting his half-season with Oklahoma City, Horford has made the playoffs in every NBA season he’s played — a perfect 14-for-14. His 147 postseason games played puts him seventh among active NBA players, tied with Miami Heat lifer Udonis Haslem and right in between James Harden (149) and Draymond Green and Klay Thompson (145). He’s one of the most experienced postseason performers in NBA basketball, but despite all those appearances, the one thing that eluded him was a trip to The NBA Finals. It was the most postseason games played by a player without an NBA Finals in NBA history.

No longer. In his 15th season in the league, Horford finally set foot on the NBA’s biggest stage, and he did so with a splash. In the Celtics’ surprising Game 1 win on the road against the Warriors, he introduced himself to The Finals with panache, scoring 26 points while connecting on half a dozen threes. Though the series didn’t fall in the Celtics’ favor, Horford fought to keep them alive even as the clock ticked down in Game 6, scoring 15 of his 19 point in the second half as he and Jaylen Brown attempted to claw their way to one more game.

NBA: Finals-Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics plan to fully guarantee Horford’s contract for the 2022-23 season, which means they’ll likely enter next season expecting another big season from their former All-Star. There’s no real reason to suspect he’s not up to the task. Though he’s now 36 years old, and managing his minutes will doubtlessly become more of a priority for Stevens and Udoka, Horford showed this season that he has the smarts and experience to contribute to winning basketball even as his body starts to slow down.

Instead, the big question is: what happens when Horford finally hangs them up? Next season will be the last year of his current contract, and while the Celtics will no doubt hope to keep him on board for a little while longer after that, he ultimately won’t be around forever. It’s time for the Celtics to start thinking about the future, and if there’s one thing this season taught us, it’s that replacing Al Horford will be no small task.

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