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Al Horford’s impressive season and the necessary context behind it

The big man has played a crucial role for the Celtics this season, yet some fans have questioned his value.

LA Clippers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s a double-edged sword, playing for the Boston Celtics. The city is home to some of the best fans in the world, fans that will give their hearts to the teams they love. But they are also some of the harshest critics in the business. If a team isn’t performing up to expectation, the fans will make their disdain known.

Despite laying claim to the best record in the NBA, the Celtics have dealt with a few speed bumps lately. A rough shooting slump, questions regarding defensive effort, and a lackluster gameplan in the closing moments have resulted in 9-7 record since December 7. In turn, some fans have been searching for solutions, and some have been looking for answers to questions that shouldn’t exist.

On Saturday, the Celtics held a comfortable lead over San Antonio up until the final moments of the fourth quarter, where the Spurs staged a comeback. Boston managed to hold on and earn the win, but a tired refrain echoed on Celtics Twitter: is Al Horford still a starting-caliber player?

The big man had an off night against the Spurs, posting just four points on 2-of-7 shooting. He also recorded 11 rebounds but was struggling a bit on the defensive end. All-in-all, it was a tough night, but the reactions were astounding.

Celtics fans were calling for Horford to be moved to a bench role, dubbing him “tired” and “a bench piece.” Some of this had to do with the general desire to see Robert Williams earn more minutes, but the notion that Horford isn’t a starting-caliber player anymore couldn’t be further from the truth.

Defensively, Horford may not be the player he once was, but he’s still one of the better defenders in the NBA. Among all 178 players who have defended at least 250 shots this season, Horford’s defensive field goal percentage (42.4%) ranks 11th. If that number increases to at least 300 shots defended, Horford moves into sixth. Bump it all the way up to 500, and he’s second behind only Nic Claxton, who is currently one of the league leaders in blocks.

The lineup of Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Horford has been one of the better defensive groups in the league. Among the top 20 five-man units in minutes played, that Celtics lineup ranks second in eFG% allowed and first in defending the three-point line, per Cleaning the Glass.

That’s all without mentioning Horford’s absurd offensive transformation. For the first eight years of his NBA career, the big man only attempted 65 threes, and 36 of them were in one season. Since then, he’s taken 1,775 threes, with his most three-heavy season (283 3PA) being with the Philadelphia 76ers. But this year with Boston, it’s been less about the total attempts and more about the percentage of attempts.

For the first time in his career, Horford is attempting more three-point shots than two-point shots, and it’s by a significantly wide margin. 63.8% of his attempts are threes, and he’s been amazing. Horford is shooting 42.6% from distance - the second-best mark of his three-point-heavy years.

Horford spoke about this change earlier in the season, noting how difficult it’s been. He said he’s focused on changing with the game itself.

“It’s been a big adjustment,” Horford told Souichi Terada of MassLive. “Mentally, I’m getting in that mindset of understanding that I’m shooting more 3s. That’s just the way it is. The game continues to change, and, for me, it’s trying to find a way that I can change, too.”

By all accounts, Horford has been amazing this season, but most fans are comparing him to the playoff version of himself that showed up in last year’s incredible postseason run. The big man averaged 12.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists on 52.3% shooting from the field and 48.0% shooting from deep.

That comparison is unfair.

There needs to be some context surrounding Horford’s season. At 36 years old, Horford is the seventh-oldest player in the NBA. Of those ahead of him, only two have logged more minutes this year - LeBron James and PJ Tucker. Three of the others are Udonis Haslem, Andre Iguodala, Taj Gibson, and Chris Paul.

Heading into the season, multiple reports indicated Boston’s plan to rest Horford on the second night of back-to-backs, which has happened. And in addition to that, there was a plan to play him fewer minutes in an attempt to keep him rested for the postseason. However, Robert Williams surgery led to a change of plans. Now, Horford is playing more minutes per game (30.4) than he has since the 2017-18 season, in which he was an All-Star for the Celtics.

On top of that, last year, Horford had a significant advantage heading into the season. The Oklahoma City Thunder sidelined him just 26 games into the prior campaign, leaving him an entire year of work, training, and preparation heading into last year’s run with the Celtics. This season, he’s coming off a long regular season and 23-game playoff run during which he averaged 35.4 minutes per contest.

And despite all of that, he’s still playing the fourth-most minutes per game on the Celtics, he’s still having one of the best shooting seasons of his career, and he’s still one of the most effective all-around defenders in the NBA.

The veteran big man responded to the criticism with an impressive game against the Chicago Bulls, sealing it with a game-clinching three-point shot in the final moments. He put up eight points, seven rebounds, and five assists on 3-of-6 shooting from the field and 2-of-5 shooting from three-point range - and he did it with Williams playing next to him in the starting lineup.

It’s natural to want Williams to start more games. He’s 25 years old, coming off of a ridiculously impressive breakout season, and he’s played extremely well in the minutes he’s gotten this season. But the coaching staff is taking it slow with him, as he’s had two major surgeries in the last year, and the Celtics just inked him to a long-term contract extension a couple offseasons ago.

However, the ideal fit should be having Williams starting next to Horford, not in place of him. That duo, alongside Smart, Brown, and Tatum, made up the best five-man unit in the league last year. And in the limited minutes they’ve played together this season, their defensive rating sits at 89.2. That would rank first among all lineups that have played 50 minutes together.

Not only is Horford a 36-year-old big man being tasked with playing more minutes than he likely anticipated, but he’s playing some absolutely stellar basketball on both sides of the court. His on-court leadership and veteran presence remain one of the most important pieces of the puzzle in Boston, and Robert Williams said as much, in his own words, on Monday night.

“Al’s the ultimate OG,” Williams told’s Amanda Pflugrad, who asked about Horford’s game-sealing three. “OG’s make big-time plays. Thankfully he came in clutch for us.”

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