As Philly fan is crying into his cheesesteak, one thing was clear from yesterday’s 76ers-Celtics game. Well, more than one thing but the most important thing outside of those hellish turnovers off the inbounds was what Al Horford did to Joel Embiid. He made it his mission to body Embiid in the post so Embiid had to work for every shot. Horford had Embiid taking one foot fadeaways. Because the 76ers can’t count on Ben Simmons down the stretch for separation, it is always going to come down to Embiid and the shooters. Horford dirtied that game up and has a 3-0 lead and is on to the conference final for the second year in a row, the third conference final in his career, once the 76ers are disposed of and will be remembered as the Process, not ready yet.
We can talk about the Celtic kids- Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown- as a reason for their success but Horford has been a consistent NBA figure since he came into the league in the 2007 Greg Oden number one pick draft. He was drafted behind Kevin Durant at number three. He has the most rebounds of his draft class and the second most Win Shares and minutes played. Amazingly, he has the seventh highest three point percentage of his class, meaning out of 60 draft picks, 54 of them shot the three ball worse than Tito Horford’s son.
Big Al, as he was known in Atlanta, is often dismissed because he has a gentleman’s ego and he is not going to wow you in any one thing. He is a good rebounder, not great. He has a soft touch but has never averaged 20 points a game. He moves the ball and cuts to the lane and he sets screens. But it doesn’t seem extraordinary, more of an Al Horford basketball thing than oh my God he just pulled up. Where he excels, both in Atlanta and now in Boston, is leadership. He has a quiet confidence. He has a high basketball I.Q. He knows what he should know. He doesn’t panic or sweat the small stuff. He is even tempered.
Horford is the perfect reason why you don’t judge a max player but the counting stats. Players in his financial class are not judged enough on their impact. It is always about points. But impact matters and Horford’s off-ball impact on the C’s is huge.
He has never been an Olympian. He is not a top-10 NBA player. In his eleven year career, Hoford has had a PER over 20.0 three times; the last time was three years ago. (It was 17.6 this past season). He has averaged double digit rebounds once and that was five years ago. He has had a higher assist percentage than rebounding percentage the last four years. He’s never averaged 20 points in his career and his 12.9 points this past season is just two points more than his rookie number of 10.1. But his defensive rating (103) was the third best in his career.
In 2017-18, Horford’s Real Plus-Minus ranked him 3rd among power fowards. Only Anthony Davis and Giannis were better. He’s undersized ala Draymond Green. This season, Green was ranked 5th in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, Hoford was ranked 8th.
Horford has great leadership intangibles which the Celtics crave. The absence of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward have created a hole Horford has willing filled. The kids need to follow someone’s habits on the floor. Horford is a perfect model.
He is graceful when he wins and graceful when he loses. Though his game is finesse, he has toughness on the glass and in the paint and spaces the floor. He is a great teammate and friend and is a “we” player not a “me” player. Rarely, if ever, does he hold the ball longer than five seconds. It’s move it or shoot it.
Horford doesn’t know what it feels like to miss the playoffs and sulk at home; every single year of his career he has played in the postseason. That said, he has suffered. He has lost in the first round four times and in the second round four times, and in the conference finals twice. Can he get to the Finals in his eleventh year. It would be improbable and probable too.
He has already been knocked out the playoffs by LeBron James in back-to-back-to-back years. He is 1-16 against the Cavs in the playoffs. What has he learned besides The King is great? Can he keep James from his 8th straight NBA Final?
The #3 draft pick in 2007 who won a title at the University of Florida and never complained when he was in Altanta about the Hawks underachievement, personnel, coaching, losing, roster construction, ownership, or the frustration of not being able to advance in the playoffs, Horford is a coach’s dream. He is being coached by Brad Stevens, a tactical master and who Horford calls a genius.
Before signing with the Celtics in the summer of 2016, he had a heart to heart with Kevin Durant. If Horford came to OKC, Durant would have committed but not long term. It was a gamble Horford wasn’t willing to take, Durant leaving and him being left with Russell Westbrook scraps.
The Celtics are a perfect blend of young and old. Al Horford wisdom. Terry Rozier ego. Al Horford calmness. Marcus Smart a hundred miles an hour. When they bury the 76ers in game 4 or 5, Al Horford will be part of the story. If the Celtics get to the Finals, he will have silenced the critics who look at Hoford’s stats and say not worth it.
He is. Worth it. But this matters too. Al Horford is a nice guy. He won’t finish last.