Last summer, the Celtics signed former Hawks All-Star center Al Horford to a four-year, $113 million deal, easily the franchise’s biggest free agent signing ever. Something like this had been long awaited for Celtics fans across the globe: signing a big-name, free agent to help improve the team without giving up anything in return. Rightfully so, fans expected big things out of the big man, and immediately. Horford’s first few months with the team were severely underwhelming, with a few injuries here and there and overall mediocre play on both sides of the ball. As of late, Horford has shined for the Celtics at an incredibly important time in the season and is finally making that big impact on his team and in games that we’ve all been waiting for.
This past week, the Celtics clinched a playoff berth for the third straight year, thanks to some key losses from conference rivals on their off-day. Not only did those teams’ losses help get the Celtics to this point, but Horford’s play as of late has helped immensely, too. Isaiah Thomas recently missed two straight games with a knee injury, therefore someone needed to step up and help fill his role as the team’s go-to scorer, someone like Horford. He did just that. Horford recorded four blocks in their win over the Brooklyn Nets, and then 27 points and 8 rebounds in a stunning loss against the 76ers. Horford did and gave all he could in that loss, but the remainder of his teammates seemed to be out of gas by the time the fourth quarter came around.
In Boston’s win against new, possible rival Washington Wizards, Horford scored 16 points paired with 9 boards and 5 assists. Then, they played the Pacers, another win in which he recorded 15 points and 8 rebounds and assists each. Horford has casually been flirting with a triple-double in seemingly every game or so, but not quite reaching it. To make what he’s done recently seem even more crazy, is the fact that he’s doing this as a center. Center’s rarely give you 8 rebounds a game, and that’s what’s helping the Celtics find their groove as they make their way towards the end of the regular season. This has been a long time coming, and the sudden surge from Horford couldn’t have come at a better time.
Prior to his explosion of great numbers, Horford has had a positive impact on his teammates all season long. His style of play is so unselfish, allowing the rest of the guys on the floor to get the ball in their hands as much as possible. More often than not, Horford is focused on moving the ball successfully around the court. This brings out the best in guys like Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder to name a few, who have all played much better as of late. This ball movement has made the Celtics the fourth best team in the league when they pass the ball, and they’ve been a top-ten offensive team for nearly the entire season. The space that Horford creates for his teammates has made him easily the best passing big man in the NBA thus far this season.
Something that the Celtics have needed to do all season and had previously failed was getting the bench to move the ball more and actually do something other than stand there and look pretty on the parquet. The bench unit has gotten much better looks recently and have started to come up big for the team when they’re on the court. Guys like Terry Rozier and Kelly Olynyk have upped their game, thanks to Horford. Putting Al in with the second unit or leaving Isaiah in the second unit more often while Horford sits has worked out great as of late, too, which is something that every good basketball team needs to work down the stretch.
The storyline for the Celtics this season has been Isaiah Thomas’ fourth quarter heroics. That, unfortunately, hasn’t been the case recently, so Horford has stepped up to help fill the holes, helping take the attention away from IT when Thomas just can’t provide a 20-point fourth quarter or what have you. Horford’s ability to stretch the floor helps do just that, giving himself and other players the opportunity to make some shots and give the team a chance to win. This will help the Celtics immensely in the playoffs, ensuring that what happened last year against the Hawks won’t happen again. Atlanta knew that Thomas was Boston’s only true threat to them, so they focused primarily on stopping The Little Guy, and it worked, big time. This time around, whoever the Celtics may face, will have to try to key in on Thomas and Horford, which won’t be a piece of cake.
If not for Horford’s presence on this team this season, I really can’t see a scenario in which the Celtics are just a game behind Cleveland for the number one seed in the East. The Celtics could literally end up being ahead of the Cavs in the standings by the time the playoffs start, and that’s pretty incredible to say, considering that the Celtics are basically still in a rebuild. Horford’s mentality, style of play and veteran leadership on the court and most likely in the locker room have helped lead the team to where they are right now. While his season stats aren’t eye-popping, at 14.3/6.8/5, he’s slowly coming alive when it matters most, at a time in which the teams needs to find its true identity to eventually win a playoff series, at last. Horford will be with Boston for another three years, and if he can keep something like what he’s doing up for a majority of his remaining time here and come in clutch in the postseason, he will have been worth every penny.