BOSTON – In their first three games since the All-Star break, the Boston Celtics have struggled. They eked out a win over the Indiana Pacers, barely scraped by against the Philadelphia 76ers, and suffered a 15-point loss to the New York Knicks. But the one positive constant in all three of those games was Al Horford.
The veteran big man has been on fire since the break, and that trend continued in Boston’s Wednesday night win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Jayson Tatum stole the show with his bounce back 41-point performance, but Horford continued his dominance as well, helping the Celtics get back on track.
“It’s all perspective,” Horford explained. “Like before that [loss to the Knicks], we won a really tough game in Philly and beat a team that plays well in Indiana coming out of the break. So, it was just one loss, and we felt like it was important, with the week that we have, that we responded here at home. Cleveland’s a really good team. They’ve been playing really well. And they beat us the first two times already this season. So, for us, it was important to come out and get this win tonight.”
Being able to regroup after a tough loss is never easy. And considering Boston’s loss to the Knicks saw them notch their worst three-point percentage (21.4%) in a single game this season, it would have been easy to change the offensive strategy moving forward. But the Celtics stuck to their ways, and Horford was a big reason for their success against the Cavaliers.
With Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Boston’s three-headed point guard group initiating the offense, Horford has been living behind the three-point line. And against the Cavaliers, the game plan came together beautifully.
“I think it’s take what the defense gives you,” Horford said. “Just looking for opportunities. I feel like our guys did a really good job today of attacking and then finding me. And I took advantage of those looks. It’s something that, to what I said earlier in the year, I knew that I had to continue to evolve as a player and grow and be able to shoot more [of] the three-ball. It’s fun when you’re out there, and you’re getting those opportunities. Obviously, tonight, it worked out for me.”
Horford ended the night with 23 points, 11 rebounds, and three assists on 8-of-10 shooting from the field and 6-of-8 shooting from behind the three-point line, including making his first eight shots of the game.
For the first time in his career, Horford is attempting more threes per game than he is two-pointers and by a wide margin (4.9 threes per game, 2.6 twos). It’s an adjustment he worked on during the offseason, and it’s paying off in big ways for the Celtics.
Having that sort of floor-spacing at the big man position allows Boston to play the five-out, three-point heavy offense that Joe Mazzulla loves. And when they’re hitting their shots, their offense is one of the deadliest in the NBA.
“It’s massive,” Mazzulla said of what Horford brings to the table. “He’s done a great job this year at recognizing [the] coverage and screening versus different coverages. And so, we ran an ATO for him. He recognized the cover that they were in and popped and shot it. The second time, they tried to switch it, and he created an advantage. And so, he’s constantly trying to find small ways to reinvent his game and what he does. You can’t put into words what he is for our team.”
Horford’s on-court efforts are perhaps outweighed by his impact behind the scenes, though. He’s the oldest player on the Celtics, and it’s clear how much the rest of the roster respects him.
At 36 years old and in his 16th NBA season, Horford continues to act as a silent three-point assassin on the court, but away from the floor, his calming presence soothes a young and hungry Boston squad.
Tatum and Brown may be the stars, Marcus Smart, Derrick White, and Malcolm Brogdon may be the playmakers, but Horford is the vet. And on a team competing for a title, having a player like him is a game-changer.
“Everybody respects Al,” Tatum said. “He’s been doing this the longest, and he’s the ultimate team guy. He’ll do whatever it takes for us to be better as a team. He puts in the work. Al is in the gym every day, off-days, lifting, working on his game, working on his body, making sure he’s fresh. And guys notice that, and it’s a domino effect. So, he brings that sense of maturity and just level-[headed]ness to the team.”