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CelticsBlog Player of the Week #18: Al Horford

Al Horford was a bright spot in an otherwise bleak week for the Boston Celtics

New York Knicks v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Needless to say, we have a tough task ahead of us to name our Player of the Week, after a 1-3 clunker of a week from the Boston Celtics that saw relatively few positives. The Celtics have slipped out of the top seed in the Eastern Conference, surrounding a nice win over the Cleveland Cavaliers with a pair of losses against the surging New York Knicks and a blown 28-point lead against the Brooklyn Nets (the biggest comeback in the NBA this season). Suboptimal performance, to say the least, which makes our field of candidates a bit thinner than usual. Let’s jump right in.

Honorable Mentions

Consistent contributions were hard to find from the Celtics this week. Most players on the roster paired one or two big games with an equal number of stinkers. Jayson Tatum was brilliant in the win over the Cavaliers, going toe-to-toe with Donovan Mitchell and scoring 41 points on 13-of-21 shooting from the field. His other 40-point performance of the week, though, felt about as poor as any 40-point outing could be — he shot just 12-of-30 against the Knicks, including 6-of-17 from behind the three-point arc.

Jaylen Brown had a 35-point night against the Nets, and was solid in the second Knicks game, but missed the first matchup against New York and was fairly anonymous against Cleveland. Malcolm Brogdon scored 22 in the first Knicks matchup, but sat out the remainder of the week due to injury. Our other recurring winner, Derrick White, was effective but unremarkable for much of the week, and snapped his personal streak of double-digit performances with mostly invisible four-point outing against the Cavaliers.

In all, it was the elder statesman of the Celtics who rose above the rest this week.

New York Knicks v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Fluharty/Getty Images

CelticsBlog Player of the Week #18: Al Horford

4 GP, 35 MPG, 15.5 PTS (58% FG, 63% 3PT), 8 REB, 3.3 AST, 1 BLK

It’s only slightly an exaggeration to say that Al Horford was one missed three away from an essentially perfect week. His shot from the corner didn’t find the mark at the end of the second overtime period against the Knicks, but as a whole, that felt like the only three he missed the entire week. The 37-year-old has been cooking lately, offering a reminder of what he brings to the table for the Celtics this postseason.

Indeed, it feels like the Horford we saw this week had shifted into that extra gear he always seems to find in the playoffs. Quietly one of the most experienced playoff performers in the league, with 147 career appearances and multiple deep Eastern Conference runs, he’s built his stellar career on making “Playoff Al” a bankable bet.

Horford was among the early batch of NBA frontcourt players to lean into the NBA’s stretch big revolution. An ever-reliable threat from the midrange, he saw and embraced the value in taking those extra few steps back to put an extra point on the scoreboard. He expanded his range across his last few seasons in Atlanta, and his tenure in Boston has seen his three-point usage expand further over time. Comparing his shot charts from the 2012-13 season and this one tells the whole story — I bet you can guess which is which.

This season has been Horford’s opus as a deep threat. He’s letting it rip from behind the arc at his best rate across a full season (apologies to his 28-game cameo with Oklahoma City in 2020-21), and he’s cashing in those looks at a career-best level as well. His three-point percentage is a preposterous 45% for the year, and he’s been nearly slump-proof as a shooter, with his 36% mark in January being his worst mark in any month this season.

This week, Horford was an instrumental factor in the team’s lone win. He helped drive the Celtics to a measure of payback against the Cleveland Cavaliers, scoring 23 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in his best outing of the season. He was perfect for much of the night, hitting all of his first eight baskets before missing a pair of heat-check threes late in the fourth with the game all but decided (late run from Darius Garland notwithstanding).

The Celtics may not have seen positive outcomes outside of the Cavaliers win, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying on Horford’s part. He’s scored at least 20 points in a game just four times this season — the Cleveland game was his season high, and he added another just four days later in the double-OT loss to the Knicks. There, he stuffed the stat sheet to the tune of 20 points (six made threes), 14 boards, six assists and a pair of blocked shots. He may not have been able to connect on that three to end the game, but the fact that the Celtics even had a shot to win the game in that situation was a credit to his all-around play.

Horford’s scoring average (9.8 PPG) is at a career-low, but it’s not a product of a reduced workload. He’s actually playing the most minutes (31.1 MPG) he’s seen since his second season in Boston, 2017-18. With Robert Williams III having been out for much of the year and the Celtics subsequently lacking consistent, quality frontcourt depth, Horford’s presence on the court has been sorely needed.

As a result, Joe Mazzulla has preserved his aging center in different ways, having him operate on the perimeter more than ever offensively while limiting his usage (11.7%, by far a career-low). The result has been a version of the big man that frequently flies under the radar. He’s declined, sure — all 36-year-olds do — but generally, he just hasn’t been asked to do as much heavy lifting as he has in the past.

That’s why weeks like this stand out. Horford may not drive the Boston offense the way he did earlier in his tenure, but he’s a valuable role player who can excel in short stretches as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option. It’s the postseason where Horford’s play will matter the most and stretches like this show that he’s still more than capable of delivering.

The schedule won’t get much easier for the Celtics as they try to course-correct. They have three games on the docket this week: a road rematch against the Cavaliers on Monday (the second night of a back-to-back), a home matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday, and a trip to Atlanta to face the Hawks on Saturday. The Celtics need someone to step up and guide this team back to their winning ways — we’ll be back next week to talk about whoever that someone turns out to be.

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