With just over seven minutes to go in the ball game, and the Celtics trailing by two, Al Horford threw an ill-advised pass to Neemias Queta that resulted in a fast break for Philadelphia.
It was an uncharacteristically poor decision for the veteran, who often serves as the most calming yet energizing presence on the roster.
So, he made sure to make up for it.
Horford sprinted back on defense, denied Tobias Harris at the rim, and then teamed up with Jaylen Brown to block him once again.
Back-to-back fourth quarter blocks for 25-year-old Al Horford. pic.twitter.com/BlYs2KKeqi— Noa Dalzell (@NoaDalzellNBA) December 2, 2023
On the ensuing offensive possession, Horford drove and collapsed the defense, kicking it out to Jrue Holiday for a wide-open corner three. Swish. The Celtics took a one-point lead.
“Just competing, trying to make something happen,” Horford told NBC Boston sideline reporter Abby Chin when asked of his consecutive blocks. “Earlier in the quarter, Mo Bamba came in and got an easy tip-in. It was probably my fault, so I feel like I needed to make up for that. In that play, I was just trying to protect the basket, trying to get us going.”
Horford scored six more points down the stretch, including a post-up with two minutes to go and four-of-four fourth quarter free throws.
The Celtics, despite Jayson Tatum’s third quarter ejection and a pretty uninspiring first half, came away with a win against Philadelphia to improve to a league-best 15-4 record.
“We had a choice,” Horford said. “We could’ve folded, or found an excuse, but I feel like our group, we really rallied together and understood that we needed to keep competing and find a way to win.”
By the end of the night, he finished with 20 points on 7 of 9 shooting, six rebounds, three assists, two blocks, and a number of hustle plays that got the bench on their feet.
Al Horford appreciation tweet, again ☘️— Tomek Kordylewski (@Timi_093) December 2, 2023
He finished with 20 points (7-9 FG), six boards, three assists & two blocks against the 76ers last night. Still one of the biggest keys for the Celtics: pic.twitter.com/jwtQt2bfC9
At 37 years old, much has been made of Horford’s continued on-court success, despite his being one of the oldest players in the league. Primarily coming off the bench this season, he’s averaged 7.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 2.8 assists this season.
But, Horford always seems to save his best showings for Philadelphia. His 20-point game last night was his first 20-point performance since March 5th’s double-overtime loss to the Knicks, and the previous game against Philadelphia was his first time scoring in double figures all season.
Last night, the Celtics needed him. Playing against a Philadelphia team missing its top two scorers — Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid were both out sick — the Celtics allowed 72 first-half points. Then, they lost their top scorer in Jayson Tatum, and seemed positioned to let one slip away.
“I don’t feel like we had it — call it that, whether it was lesser competition, or we just felt a step slow out there, it was all the way around,” Horford said. “In the second half, we did a better job. Held them to 25 in the third, 22 in the fourth. That’s more us. That first half, I don’t think it was indicative of our team.”
The Celtics have historically struggled against short-handed squads, matchups that Derrick White described as difficult due to the fact players play more freely when the stars on their team are sidelined.
“I feel like we didn’t set the tone, we didn’t play the way that we’re supposed to play, and they were making really tough shots all over the place — contested, tough shots,” Horford said. “The second half, we responded, it was much better. But once you get a team going like that, it’s really hard to kind of cool them off. It was one of those games that we had to find a way to win, and I’m glad we won it because it would have been awful if we would have lost this game.”
If it weren’t for Horford’s big night, they might not have been able to rectify the lackluster start. Despite struggling with his shot in the opening month, Horford is now shooting 48.5% from the field and 35.9% from three. Reinserted into the starting lineup with Kristaps Porzingis sidelined over the last three games, Horford has hit 16 of his last 25 shots.
“It’s the most inspiring thing for me as a coach to watch him,” Joe Mazzulla said after the Celtics last faced Philadelphia.
In his last two games combined, Horford has gone for 36 points, 15 boards, 9 assists, 5 blocks, and 3 steals. He’s turning back the clock, and he’s helping the Celtics continue their dominance, especially when he’s matched up against his former team.