Celtics Insider

Forsberg: Horford turning back the clock an unexpected boost for Celtics

Celtics Insider

The spin move left Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo skidding in the wrong direction last week. And when 35-year-old Al Horford made a beeline for the basket immediately after, the rest of the Miami Heat defenders seemingly watched in as much astonishment as the rest of us as Horford punctuated the turn-back-the-clock sequence by dunking directly over Father Time.

The entire Boston bench exploded in celebration. Grant Williams, who would have been in the third grade when Horford was the No. 3 pick of the Atlanta Hawks in 2007, flexed and offered a firm chest bump.

One of more distressing parts of Boston’s poor start is how it’s spoiled some spectacular basketball from Horford, who is playing maybe even better than when the Celtics first signed him to a four-year, $113 million max contract back in 2016.

Every Horford highlight now is punctuated with a, “HE’S THIRTY-FIVE YEARS OLD!” exclamation and, while Horford is a good sport about being labeled a basketball geriatric, there are others in his circle that wonder why the rest of us are making such a fuss about it.

"My wife [Amelia] she’s like, ‘I don’t understand this.’ Like, ‘Why is that a thing?’" Horford said with a smile while being peppered with questions about his age this week.

"For me, honestly, I'm kind of used to it because when I was 30 here, I feel like people were bringing it up like, ‘Oh, he’s 30!’ and all this stuff. I play how I play, I've kind of been kind -- I feel really good, physically. I feel really good. I know where I'm at. I know what I can do. And, yeah, I’m 35, but I feel as long as I'm putting in the work -- I am putting in the work -- I’m doing everything that I need to do and I feel like I can keep playing at a high level."

 

There’s a lot of miles on Horford’s tires. He has now played 1,013 NBA games (regular season and postseason combined) and logged a total of 33,116 minutes. When the Celtics brought back Horford while shipping out Kemba Walker in June, the primary goal was future financial flexibility. The secondary hope was that Horford’s familiarity with Boston’s core could make him a serviceable player despite his age.

Instead, Horford has been arguably Boston’s best two-way player through the first 10 games of the season. This despite a battle with COVID right before the start of the season that caused him to miss Boston’s opener.

Horford hasn’t just turned back the clock, he’s found new ways to impact the game. He’s second in the NBA in blocks per game (2.6) trailing only Indiana’s Myles Turner. In fact, Horford’s block percentage is a career-best 4.5 percent, which is more than double his best season since first arriving in Boston (2.2 percent in 2018-19).

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Horford’s shot has defied him to start the year -- he’s at just 35 percent on all mid-range shots and 28 percent on all 3s -- but he’s shooting 86 percent at the rim. He’s rebounding at a rate higher than at any point in his career and his passing has been a welcome addition to a team that desperately needed a ball-movement jolt.

All of which begs the question: What the heck did they do in Oklahoma City to get Horford feeling this good? Sure, the Thunder shut him down last season and allowed him to rest those weary knees. But they also seemingly dipped him in the Hot Tub Time Machine.

"[The Thunder medical staff was] great. They just had great support systems, kind of like what we have here now, but they really -- looking at my nutrition, helping me with treatments before or after practice, the lift, or the performance stuff, kind of mapping the schedule out and kind of making the player involved in everything that goes into playing the games, which is something that we're doing here as well.

 

"And that, for me, that year was very beneficial, for me to feel good again, get healthy, and things like that. They have a great program over there. I was really impressed. And they really helped me be in this position, from a basketball standpoint, health-wise."

The Celtics’ defensive rating is a team-best 97.1 in Horford’s 236 minutes of floor time. It skyrockets to 111.9 without him.

The Celtics’ defensive rating is a team-best 97.1 in Horford’s 236 minutes of floor time. It skyrockets to 111.9 without him. Horford has paired well in Boston’s starting frontcourt with Rob Williams and that unit should thrive more as the two figure out the best way to coexist (and when Horford starts making more shots to take some pressure off Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown).

But it’s clear how much Horford’s presence alone means to these young Celtics.

"Al’s a big influence on a lot of players and he doesn't even know it," said Rob Williams. "He's not the type to speak up a lot but, leading by example, he's one of the best, on and off the court. So I'm forever thankful for Al."

Echoed Tatum: "I'm extremely happy to have Al back. I love everything about how he plays the game, how he goes about his duties on a day-to-day basis. He's a true professional. I'm sure that everyone will say the same thing about him. Just a great teammate, a great person to be around."

After a rough go in Philadelphia and downshifting in Oklahoma City, Horford has a greater appreciation for this opportunity as well. It’s why he’s trying to get these Celtics on track out of the gates.

"I think the biggest thing, and I told the guys, is making sure that we make the most out of this opportunity," said Horford. "I’m very grateful to be here with the Celtics and it doesn't matter kind of what has happened in the past. We have an opportunity now, this season, we have all the pieces that we need to be successful. So I just tell them to take advantage of this.

"When I look back on my long NBA career, I know there's definitely some teams that are like, ‘Man, if we could have,” or if this were to happen or that were to happen. I don't want to have any regrets. I think our group is committed. We're committed to continue to get better to take advantage of this opportunity that we have."

At 35, Horford knows these days won’t last forever. He’s hell-bent on making the most of them.