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The impact of Al Horford

Boston’s veteran center has thrown a wrench in to Atlanta’s defensive plans by just being out on the floor.

NBA: Playoffs-Atlanta Hawks at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

After a 119-106 win on Tuesday night at TD Garden, the Boston Celtics have jumped out to a 2-0 series lead over the Atlanta Hawks as they head on the road to State Farm Arena. The series is the first between the two franchises since Boston’s 2008 championship run, where the 8th seed Hawks pushed the 1st seed Celtics to seven games. Fifteen years later, there is one common thread that ties these two series together: Al Horford.

Horford was drafted by Atlanta third overall in the 2007 draft out of Florida, and spent nearly a decade playing there until his departure to the Boston Celtics. This is the first time facing his former team in the postseason during his lengthy career — a career that saw him leave Boston for Philadelphia, be traded to Oklahoma City after only one season, and to miraculously find his way back to Boston again after the Celtics dealt Kemba Walker to the Thunder.

A major reason for Horford’s departure from Atlanta was to compete for a championship, and in his second stint for the Celtics, that dream has a chance to become a living, breathing reality after coming up short last season. After finally making The Finals for the first time in his decorated career, the story of “Big Al” has been one of perseverance, redemption, and longevity. At 36 years old, the Dominican big man has been vital to Boston’s success this season, and this series against Atlanta is no exception.

Per NBA Stats, through two games, Horford leads the team in plus-minus (+36), is tied with Robert Williams for third most rebounds on the team with 13, and is tied with Derrick White (!) for the most blocks (5). Horford also has the highest net rating out of Boston’s starters (23.6), and despite having the second-lowest usage rate on the team, the veteran is second behind Malcolm Brogdon in offensive rating. Big Al is 5-of-10 from the field, and almost exclusively from beyond the three-point arc (4-of-8 from deep).

While not being a massive scoring impact, Horford’s presence alone has made things incredibly difficult for Atlanta on both sides of the ball due to his versatility. As a 50% shooter from range, the Hawks can’t afford to leave Horford open, and it’s pulled the Hawks away from one of their positions of strength and comfort with their interior defense. The only Hawks big that isn’t a net negative is John Collins with a net rating of 1.6; Collins is actually the only Hawks player with a positive net rating at all.

“They have guys who are fine with their role,” said Hawks center Clint Capela during shootaround before Tuesday’s game. “Like I’m thinking about Al Horford, who’s really stretching me out the whole game. He’s not getting his shot, but just by having me out there (guarding him), it makes my job harder to help my teammates in the paint. So just stuff like that...what I really see is unselfishness through their roles, and it’s really how they build that chemistry.”

Unselfish might be the most concise and perfect way to describe Al Horford, especially in this series where he’s not getting up loads of shot attempts. He’s always going to be looking for the best play, whether it is to fire away from deep, handing the ball off, or swinging the ball over to the next open man for a better look. In the late stages of his career, his presence is a calming one for his younger teammates, and a disruptive one for their opponents.

Al’s ability to knock down threes isn’t some fluke. The Celtics have been able to take one of Atlanta’s biggest chess pieces away from them, and it’s in no small part thanks to Al Horford and his ability to provide spacing. Making the Hawks (22nd in defensive rating during the regular season) uncomfortable in their one position of true strength at center has sent them scrambling, and it might just force Atlanta to try and go smaller in order to combat that mismatch.

Boston will look to continue their success on Friday night as they take on the Hawks in Atlanta, 7 pm EST tipoff.

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