With 2:32 left in the game — and the Celtics up five points — 37-year-old Al Horford sunk his third three-pointer of the night to give the Celtics their largest lead of the fourth quarter. A smirk on his face, he blew a kiss toward a courtside fan who had been heckling him all game, reminding Wells Fargo Arena — and the national TV audience tuning in — that when the 76ers face the Celtics, Horford turning back the clock is a given.
“There were some fans in the front row talking, I just love it, man. When I hear that talking, it gives me a little extra,” Horford said, grinning in his postgame interview. “I appreciate them. They always do that in that corner in Philly, I don’t know what it is, they just want to talk. Some people go off in a different way, but to me, I like it. It was good to hear that shot and turn around and look at them and smile.”
Less than a minute after that made three, he scrambled to block a Robert Covington layup, tallying his fifth rejection of the night. That sequence came after he had effectively taken Joel Embiid out of the game in the fourth quarter, limiting the MVP to just four points in the closing period (two once the game was already out of reach).
Joel Embiid had season-low 20 points last night against the Celtics.— Tomek Kordylewski (@Timi_093) November 16, 2023
Big reason why? Al Horford. As always. pic.twitter.com/FIMR1fCKsl
The Celtics pulled away with a 117-107 victory over one of the hottest teams in the league, despite the absence of both their second and third leading scorers, Jaylen Brown and Kristaps Porzingis. And as is typically the case when Boston defeats Philadelphia, Horford was absolutely instrumental in the victory.
“It starts with Al,” Joe Mazzulla said after the game. “We can’t have the type of culture and the type of team — the thing that we have — without a guy like him. For him to come off the bench in some games, and then when his name is called, to play the way he did in that second half…”
Mazzulla shared that after missing a three-pointer on the right wing, Horford came up to him and asked if he should have instead cut to the basket. Mazzulla, who has unwavering confidence in the veteran sharpshooter, immediately rejected that notion, instead asserting Horford should have pulled the trigger even faster. Al responded by hitting a three from the corner shortly after, much to his coach’s and teammates’ satisfaction.
“We all believe in him and the work that he puts in,” Jayson Tatum said. “Sometimes you make shots, sometimes you don’t, but his level of poise, his intensity on defense this late in his career, the way he talks to guys out there on the court, we benefit greatly from having him on the team.”
Horford has started almost every game of his 17-year NBA career, but has adjusted to a bench role this year for the first time. Much has been made of this change, but Horford has maintained that regardless of his spot in the starting lineup, his mentality doesn’t change.
“The only difference is starting vs not starting, but besides that, I feel like that’s what I do for the most part,” Horford said. “If I have to guard in the perimeter, if I have to guard in the post, create energy in different ways, shoot threes, just different things. I’m trying to do whatever I can to help our group.”
Horford came into the game struggling offensively, and is currently shooting 29.4% from three on the season, a substantial dip from his career-best 44.6% mark last year.
Last night, he went 3-6 from three, his best shooting performance of the season. He finished the night with 14 points, 8 rebounds, 5 blocks, and 3 assists in just under 29 minutes.
“Just keep shooting, just keep shooting,” Horford said when asked about his mentality. “I put in a lot of work, it [my confidence] doesn’t waver. I’m still doing a lot of things, watching a lot of film, things like that, staying ready for these moments.”
Regardless of his offensive production, every time he has checked in this season, Al has come in with an infusion of energy and hustle that has invigorated his teammates.
“When you can empower him, and he’s ready to go, it just makes us a different team. He’s on that list of, when he plays hard, he inspires everybody,” Mazzulla said.
Primarily guarded by Horford, Embiid was held to just four free throws and 20 points on the night, both season-lows. In six fourth quarter minutes, Embiid lost the ball once, fouled Jayson Tatum on a subsequent fast-break layup, and proceeded to attempt just two field goals.
Tatum, who last night deemed Horford his ‘favorite teammate ever’ spoke glowingly about their evolving friendship. Al, who was 30 at the time, first Tatum under his wing when he was a 19-year-old rookie.
“I just always remember he would periodically, and at random times throughout my first year, ask me ‘how am I doing? How am I adjusting?’” Tatum said. “And it was somebody I really respected, just how he went about his work — never late, always on time, always getting his work in the gym, always taking care of his body. I learned a lot from him from a routine standpoint.”
Jordan Walsh, this year’s draft pick, didn’t hesitate when asked in training camp who has been his mentor so far. The answer was a resounding Al Horford.
And while Tatum isn’t 19 anymore (ha ha), the two are as close as ever, typically sitting together on the team plane. “As I’ve gotten older, our relationship has grown. It’s based on the respect I have for him, and likewise. We know we need each other… he still asks me: how am I feeling? How’s my body?”
Derrick White, who also had a standout night and finished with 27 points on just 12 field goals, spoke glowingly about Horford after the game.
“Al’s amazing,” White said. “Everything he does out there, I’m just thankful to be his teammate. Just seeing the work he puts in day-in and day-out, it’s inspiring. You can see why he’s played for, what is it, 17 years now? Every time he’s out there, he does good things for us, and just competes. It’s amazing having him as a teammate.”
Tatum lauded Horford for his unwavering willingness to make the right pass, for his intensity, and for his willingness to accept a reduced role this season despite his accolades and success.
“Everybody talks about sacrifice and talks about being a team-first guy, but he’s the true definition of that,” Tatum said.
But no one quit sings Horford’s praises like his head coach.
“It’s the most inspiring thing for me as a coach to watch him,” Mazzulla said. “He’s Al. One, he’s two years older than me. I get to coach a guy that’s older than me, that’s fun. Secondly, he’s one of the most selfless, humble, people that you have and literally he will do anything to win. We can’t do what we do as a team if we don’t have a guy like that at the top.”