Before the wheels came off for the Boston Celtics in their second-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks, the most vivid image from Boston’s early postseason success might have been Al Horford completing a two-block sequence against Giannis Antetokounmpo by volleyball-spiking a shot attempt so forcefully that the ball rocketed off the floor, hit the bottom of the basket, and shot out of bounds.
It was a reminder of Playoff Al, a player who’s postseason exploits tend to amplify the volume on all the things that Horford does more quietly during the regular season. Horford’s play, particularly against some of the NBA’s top big men, tends to elevate on the bigger stage.
While not even Horford could rescue the Celtics as the wheels came off against Milwaukee, the postseason numbers only accentuated his value. Boston's net rating in the 122 minutes that Horford was off the court was a ghastly minus-15.2. The Celtics were essentially 19.1 points per 100 possessions better when Horford was on the floor, and the eye test confirmed as much.
Horford’s regular-season minutes dropped below 30 per game for the first time in his pro career and the Celtics worked hard to combat some knee soreness that left him slow out of the gates. Horford sat out seven straight games in December and spent much of it huddling with the strength and conditioning crew trying to fortify the knee with hopes of preventing potential setbacks.
It seemed to work. Horford’s per-36 numbers were among his best since arriving in Boston, and he saw spikes in random spots like posting the best block percentage (3.9%) of his entire career. His true shooting percentage was a career-best 60.5 as well.
The downsides? Horford’s rebound rate dipped again, including his worst full season on the defensive glass. He struggled with his 3-point shot, crashing from a career-best 42.9 percent last season to below-career-average 36 percent this year. His assist percentage dipped a bit, as well, as the Celtics didn’t run nearly as much offense through him with a healthy Kyrie Irving back in the fold.
Still, there was far more good than bad for Horford. Especially in the postseason.
The big question is what happens next.
Horford’s future is a little murky. He must decide by June 18 if he will trigger a $30.1 million option or wade into free agency. Horford, who will turn 33 before that decision deadline, could opt out, even if simply to seek a longer-term deal (say something like a new three-year deal that pays him $70 million). It would ease Boston’s salary burden and give Horford the sort of security that might bring him closer to the finish line of his career. Opting out might also open doors for a new employer if Horford isn’t on board with the direction of the Celtics.
Opting in ensures a rich payday — only 11 players in the league made north of $30 million during the 2018-19 season — but would also leave Horford vulnerable to being moved in any big-splash move the Celtics might make over the summer. It’s a calculated risk and one that Horford might have to decide with only limited assurances about how the Celtics plan to progress.
It would seem that Boston would want Horford back under most roster scenarios next season but both sides probably need to see how things start to shake down.
If the Celtics are in position to compete for a title, they’re going to want Horford along for the ride. While the young guys got a lot of the credit during last year’s surprise playoff run, it was Horford who was the team's rock. He did a lot of good things again this postseason, even if the Celtics could never put it together as a team.
The East could see some changes this summer but it’s likely that Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid will still be among Boston’s primary playoff competition when the dust settles. And that alone might be all the motivation that Boston needs to keep Horford around.
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