Celtics

Winning is Horford's focus, not putting up big numbers

Winning is Horford's focus, not putting up big numbers

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.”

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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.”

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Baynes in Celtics starting lineup in battle with Whiteside

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Baynes in Celtics starting lineup in battle with Whiteside

Brad Stevens has said on more than one occasion the Boston Celtics’ starting lineup may fluctuate based upon who they play which is indeed the case against the Miami Heat tonight.

Stevens said 6-foot-11 center Aron Baynes will replace Marcus Morris in the starting lineup tonight to help battle Miami 7-footer Hassan Whiteside. He will join a unit that includes Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford.

Boston defeated Miami earlier this season 96-90, but Whiteside did not play due to injury.

“We’ve mixed and matched all year with our starters,” Stevens told reporters.

Regardless of who the Celtics were playing tonight, there was a good chance that Baynes would be in the starting lineup for Morris who is having some more soreness in his left knee which sidelined him for the first eight games of the season.

Morris, who has started the last four games and seven of the last eight, is questionable to play tonight.

“We’ve been trying to manage his minutes the best that we can,” Stevens said. “But for whatever reason, he had a little bit (of soreness) in Dallas. He feels a lot better, two days later. But we want to make sure.”

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Streak reveals depth even Celtics didn't know they had

Streak reveals depth even Celtics didn't know they had

Coaches in all sports will tell you that winning is not easy.
 
Making the Celtics’ 16-game winning streak even more impressive is that a number of the victories have involved Boston turning to some unlikely sources of production.

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And that has provided a glimpse into a franchise that’s getting the best of both worlds: quality play from its core group while developing reserves who have contributed to the team reeling off 16 straight wins in a variety of ways.
 
Because coach Brad Stevens has gone deeper into his bench this season than past years, it has created a roster with minutes more evenly distributed and with that, less wear and tear on the bodies of key players.
 
And while this team is led by Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, there has been at least one other Celtic to emerge as a top-three performer every night...and often it’s not the same player.
 
“Much more unpredictable now,” a league executive texted to NBC Sports Boston. “That number three guy, is it [Jaylen] Brown? [Jayson] Tatum? Sometimes it’s Marcus [Smart]. You don’t know who it’s going to be because a lot of times, I don’t think they [Celtics] know who it will be. It’s why they’re so good, man.”
 
Here are five under-the-radar storylines heading into tonight’s game in Miami with the Celtics trying to push their winning streak to 17:

KYRIE FOR MVP
It’s one thing for the home crowd to get into the ‘M-V-P’ chants when you’re at the free-throw line. But it’s a completely different matter when those same cheers are being heard on the road. That’s where Irving was following the 110-102 overtime win at Dallas, a game in which Irving dropped 47 points, 10 in overtime. It’ll be interesting to see if another strong game by Irving will lead to another serenading of ‘M-V-P’ chants for the most dominant player on the team with the league’s best record.


 
TURNING DOWN THE HEAT
The streak is the talk of the NBA right now, but streaking was going to be part of the conversation leading up to tonight’s game regardless. The Celtics come into tonight’s game having won eight in a row over the Heat, their longest current winning streak over any team. Boston has dominated this matchup for years, posting a 70-44 record all-time against Miami in the regular season.
 

DUKE CONNECTION
College basketball just kicked off and Duke is once again among the game’s top teams, a school that consistently produces NBA talent at a relatively high level. That’ll be very apparent tonight when you consider this Boston-Miami matchup features three players (Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum for Boston, Justise Winslow for Miami) from Duke who will all be in the starting lineup and a fourth (Boston’s Semi Ojeleye) who attended Duke but later transferred to SMU.


 
JUSTISE WINSLOW
Every front-office executive has that one player they tried – and failed – to acquire that, in hindsight, not getting him was a really good thing. Winslow is that guy for the Celtics. While he hasn’t been necessarily a bust, his impact at this level hasn’t been enough to have warranted all the assets Boston was willing to part with on draft night in order to move up and select him. Still, he’s healthy now and starting to play better which is evident by his numbers in most offensive categories on the rise, while his defense has been relatively solid.
 

THREE-POINTERS
The Heat have made the 3-point shot a much bigger part of their offense this season, evident by Miami ranking seventh in the league in 3-point makes (11.2) this season. In Boston, one of the keys to their top-ranked defense has been their length, which has come in real handy defending the 3-pointer. In fact, Boston has limited opponents to just 32.1 percent shooting on 3’s this season, which ranks third in the league.

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