Counting postseason basketball, Al Horford has played 911 career NBA games. Through his first five as a Sixer, he’s been just about everything the team could have wanted.
With Joel Embiid out Saturday night in Portland, serving the first game of a two-suspension following a fight Wednesday with the Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns, Horford had 25 points, seven assists, five rebounds, two blocks and just one turnover. He also set the screen on Damian Lillard that freed Furkan Korkmaz for his game-winning three-pointer, wrapping up the Sixers' 129-128 comeback win over the Trail Blazers.
The reality of coaching Horford, a rival during his time with the Celtics, isn’t as strange as it was for Brett Brown at the start of training camp, when he said he was “blown away" by that fact. But the Sixers’ head coach still has a deep appreciation of Horford’s value.
Having defended him and having him defend us during the Celtic-Sixer rivalry days, which still kind of exist, I get it,” Brown told reporters in Portland. “To look out and see him in a Philadelphia uniform, I always have a quiet smile because I just have such respect for him as a person and certainly as a player, and it’s borne out of the pain that he put on us over my days coaching against him.
In both the Sixers’ win over Detroit last Saturday and against the Blazers, Horford and Tobias Harris have assumed a greater scoring load. The two combined for a total of 100 points in those games on 56.9 percent shooting from the floor.
Horford attempted 24 shots Saturday, the most he's ever taken in a game in his career. He’d only reached that number once before, on Feb. 4, 2015. On Monday in Atlanta, Horford had played about a minute and a half more and attempted 20 fewer shots, deferring to a dominant Embiid.
He’s a malleable player, to put it mildly. When asked about him, Horford’s teammates have tended to first praise his intelligence and professionalism. It’s been apparent, though, that the 33-year-old still has both the savvy to identify precisely what his team requires and the skills to fill those needs.
His playmaking has been a quality that’s shined regardless of his role. Horford has been a centerpiece of the offense in non-Embiid minutes, keeping the ball moving from the high post, hitting cutters and helping the team play at a high pace. He has 21 assists and four turnovers.
“Al’s smart, man,” Josh Richardson said. “Al’s a veteran’s vet. You can’t really ask for a better leader for a team. He’s always level-headed. He’s fired up when he needs to be. but usually he just keeps it to a tone that everybody can relate to. He does the little things, he’s vocal, he makes good plays. He’s been great.”
Horford was notably the Sixer who took the strongest public stance against Embiid’s tussle with Towns. He epitomized the mature “veteran’s veteran” Richardson described in sternly saying, “there’s just no place for that in our game.”
Of course, he also was sure to note that Embiid and Towns are both “good kids.”
The Sixers’ offensive identity appears to be centered around pounding home size in the post — they’ve already posted up 23 more times than any team in the league, per NBA.com/Stats. Defensively, they’ve played a style that’s toed the line between aggressive and reckless, forcing 19.0 turnovers per game, third in the NBA. On a team with such a grinding, relentless, attacking identity, there’s something to be said for having a steady presence, one who doesn’t mind going against popular opinion.
It’s a long season, as Horford will surely tell his teammates when that reminder is needed. Five games in, he looks like a valuable player to have on the ride.
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