BOSTON – It really was the best and worst of times a year ago for Al Horford.
He signed with a Boston Celtics squad that had more upside than the Atlanta crew he was leaving behind, armed with a four-year, $113 million contract. Making life even better was the soon-to-be birth of his second child Alia’ who will be a one-year-old later this month.
But a concussion in practice that kept him out for nine games didn’t sit well with some (uninformed) fans who felt he should have returned to action sooner. And when he did return, he didn’t put up the kind of numbers that many felt a player with a max contract should generate (never mind the fact that the Celtics were winning and would eventually finish with more victories than any team in the Eastern Conference).
Horford readily admits he had a lot going on at the start of last season which contributed to what was a less-than-ideal beginning for him in Boston.
“No question. Transitions, changes can be tough,” Horford, who came to Boston after nine seasons in Atlanta, told NBC Sports Boston. “For me, it was my first time experiencing a new city, just everything that comes with it, playing with the Celtics and everything that goes along with that. I think in this my second year, everything has slowed down for me, the focus is on basketball mostly; I know what to expect. I’m comfortable in my surroundings. I’m getting to enjoy being in Boston. It makes everything more fun and easier for me.”
It certainly has been a hell of a ride thus far this season for Celtics fans whose club is off to a 7-2 start which hasn’t happened since the 2010-2011 season.
And Horford’s play has been absolutely vital to the team’s success thus far, delivering in the clutch at both ends of the floor this season.
In his 11th NBA season, Horford is averaging 14.7 points, 9.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game while shooting a career-best 46.7 percent from 3-point range.
And it is Horford’s three-point production that has been a savior of sorts for the Celtics this season.
He was particularly good down the stretch in Boston’s 101-94 win at Oklahoma City, a game in which the Celtics trailed by as many as 18 points.
In the fourth quarter, Horford drained a 3-pointer from the corner that put Boston ahead 82-79 with 4:52 to play.
Horford would come back about 90 seconds later with another 3-pointer that gave Boston its largest lead (90-83) of the game.
He would finish with 20 points, 13 of which came in the fourth quarter while making all four of his 3-point attempts for the game.
As much as Boston has gotten a boost of late from his offense, Horford’s defense has really been at an elite level.
He comes into today’s game at Orlando with a defensive rating of 91.1 which is tops in the NBA among players who log at least 30 minutes of playing time per game.
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens sensed a change in Horford at the start of training camp.
“Maybe a little louder, earlier,” Stevens told NBC Sports Boston. “We’ve always thought when he speaks, everyone listens. So, the more that he’s got to share the more that we want him to share.”
Indeed, Horford often lets his play speak for him.
But being a proven veteran that so many younger players will lean on for wisdom, experience and an encouraging word from time to time, it became imperative that Horford become more comfortable with speaking out sooner rather than later.
“That’s hard when you’re first transitioning in,” Stevens said. “Al’s really smart. I don’t think you can just come in and talk. You have to come in and observe, learn, meet, create relationships and then when you choose your words you have to choose them carefully. Al’s the best at it. Al’s as good a role model for young players on and off the court, as there is.”
Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan was Horford’s coach at the University of Florida where Horford contributed to the Gators winning back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007 – the last NCAA men’s basketball team to do so.
“The thing I would say about Al, it’s so hard to put a measuring stick but he has the ‘It’ factor,” Donovan said. “You can’t pinpoint it. He’s just a winner. He can figure out how to get inside any team and figure out a way to make the team better in the locker room chemistry-wise, and on the court chemistry-wise. He’s really unique from that standpoint.”
Donovan added, “One of the best leaders I’ve ever been around, one of the best players I’ve had a chance to coach.”
As talented as Horford was when he came into the NBA, he really has made a point of working on his game to improve in some facet every season.
Nowhere has his improvement been more noticeable than in his 3-point shooting.
He comes into today’s game against Orlando shooting 46.7 percent from 3-point range which ranks second in the NBA to ex-Celtic Kelly Olynyk (54.2 percent) among centers averaging at least one made 3-pointer per game.
Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson was an assistant coach with the Atlanta Hawks and was pivotal in convincing Horford to expand his offensive repertoire to include the 3-point shot when both were in Atlanta.
“At the end of the day, I felt he could stretch the floor from the three,” Atkinson said.
But it took a little convincing on Atkinson’s part to get Horford to give it a try.
“He was a little skeptical at first,” Atkinson said. “Once we started working and we practiced, practiced all summer. He just embraced it.”
Horford shot a total of 65 3-pointers through his first eight seasons in the NBA.
In the last two-plus seasons, he has taken 528 3-pointers in 159 games, or 3.3 per game.
But as well as Horford has shot the ball, his defense has been what has set him apart from most this season.
To see his steady growth at both ends of the floor is not a surprise to Donovan.
“His game has always kind of every year in the years I had him, always got better,” Donovan said. “He’s that kind of player. He’s really smart and bright, and really knows what to focus on and what he has to do. He’s a terrific player. I was fortunate enough to share two national championships with him, and he was a major part of that.”
And that point made by Donovan – winning – is what drives Horford and makes him a dream to coach.
Because unlike many players in the NBA, Horford is willing to do what it takes to win, even if it means putting up numbers that may not necessarily be as impressive as fans would want.
“I get it, and I understand,” Horford said. “But I have a job, a responsibility to my teammates and the coaching staff, to do whatever I can to help us win games and that’s always going to be my focus. Putting up big numbers is great, but that’s not my focus. I want to win; that’s all I care about.”
Said Stevens: “He’s always been that way. He doesn’t care about the stats stuff. When he gets his shots, he takes advantage of them. But he’s not going to force what’s not there. There’s a real … he’s a guy that seems very comfortable in what he needs to do to be a successful player and part of a winning team.”