Al Horford continues to find ways to influence games. No longer an interior scorer, Horford has become an integral member of the Boston Celtics' five-out system, with Joe Mazzulla utilizing his playmaking ability, ever-improving three-point shot, and willingness to be a screener in order to ensure Horford’s offensive impact remains a potent offensive weapn.
Defensively, Horford continues to excel at playing the angles, using his body to cut off driving lanes, deter passing opportunities, and protect the rim against smaller, shiftier players while also banging with the mammoths the NBA has to offer.
Against the Charlotte Hornets on Monday night, we saw each aspect of the modern-day Horford, with the veteran shining in his role and seemingly displaying a new lease of life now that he’s being paired with the fit-again Robert Williams. As with everything the Celtics do these days, Horford’s impact began on the perimeter, with him acting as a connector within a solid offensive possession that displayed fantastic screening and movement to generate an open three-point shot.
The possession starts with Horford situated in the corner — an area of the court where he’s currently converting 47% of his shots, hitting 31 of his 66 attempts thus far. As Marcus Smart comes off a Derrick White screen, he darts into a wide pin-down to get Horford open. A quick pass from Robert Williams sees Horford obtain possession before he quickly flicks the ball to White before setting a screen to create the open look.
Horford’s presence in the corner ensured the Hornets' defense remained spaced. His ensuing movements ensured that the defense was set into motion (hat tip to Robert Williams for cutting when he did, taking Mason Plumlee away from the action) and that Horford’s screen created an open shot.
This is what Horford does. He plays the game the right way, never focused on the box score or individual accolades but rather on creating the best opportunity possible, regardless of who takes the shot.
Speaking of creating opportunities, can we take a moment to appreciate the connection between Horford and Williams on this lob? Seeing the Celtics' two big men link up like this is nothing short of luxury and an embarrassment of riches in their starting five.
We could look at Horford’s offense further, but in terms of this single game, his role was clear — screen (he had 3 screen assists), pass (made 35 passes), space the floor (shot 50% from deep). All things Horford does well, but also things that limited his direct involvement in actions. As such, let’s switch our attention to the defensive end of the court because, as we all know, Horford can defend with the best of them.
For the majority of the season, we’ve seen Mazzulla utilize Horford as either a drop defender or as the big man playing up-to-touch on the screener and then reacting to the player. However, in the above possession, Ageless Al is guarding 25-year-old Dennis Smith Jr. on the perimeter as he looks to force him off the three-point line and into a difficult jumper or into making a pass.
As the play unfolds, we see Smith Jr. look to test Horford’s lateral mobility and quickness as he drives into the paint in the hope of creating some separation between him and his bigger defender. No dice. Horford moves his feet well, stays with his man, and impacts the shot enough to force a miss, all while guarding a smaller, quicker player without committing a foul to send him to the line.
On this possession, Horford is back in his usual drop coverage, looking to contain the drive of Terry Rozier and the roll from Plumlee. As Rozier rejects the screen, Smart and Horford position their bodies to take away the paint, and funnel their former teammate toward the baseline, encouraging him to either pass, shoot, or reset the possession and go deeper into the shot clock.
Rozier opts to pass, finding Plumlee around the nail. Impressively, Horford flips his hips and covers enough distance to close out on the Hornets' big man in a single step, giving him the angle to absorb any contact whilst also impacting any potential shot release. Horford’s positioning has ensured Plumlee doesn’t have a clean look at the rim or the backboard, forcing him into a little bunny fadeaway which clanks off the backboard.
Horford has never been the most athletic or explosive player, yet his basketball IQ and ability to close space with angles and well-timed movements have always ensured that he’s an impactful member of a rotation. Now, aged 36, the years of utilizing positions, angles, and thinking the game is paying dividends as he continues to try and outsmart his opponents.
“He always steps up and answers the bell. He is a great competitor, great team guy. He’s all about winning,” Billy Donovan (who coached Horford during their time together at Florida) said following the Celtics' January 9 victory over the Chicago Bulls.
The Celtics might need to begin thinking about potential Horford replacements in the near future, but for now, and hopefully, in the coming two years (the duration of his recent contract extension), he can continue to impact games on both ends of the floor and prove that ‘Ageless Al’ is more than just a loving moniker provided by Celtics fans online.
I'm sorry, but there can be no more Al Horford slander after this. Dude has been great recently, and this dunk was just the icing on the cake of an impressive performance. pic.twitter.com/9Au6beK47S— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) January 17, 2023
Thankfully, moments like the dunk shown above make it easy to believe Horford is going to be around for a while yet, and that his leadership will continue to be a steadying presence within the locker room and on the court.