The Sixers have a tradition at the end of every home win. They select a player of the game and that player signs a basketball and sends it into the crowd.
Al Horford, having earned the honor Thursday night, opted to punt the ball into the seats, a popular move among the Sixers. When Horford kicked the ball into the sellout crowd, an unsuspecting fan was hit. The veteran big man waved his arm to the fan as if to say, “my bad.”
Not much else went wrong for Horford.
Starting at center in place of Joel Embiid, Horford had one of his better games as a Sixer against his former team. He helped the team start a stretch of games without their “crown jewel” on a strong note with a 109-98 win (see observations).
This was the kind of night GM Elton Brand had in mind when he signed the 33-year-old to a four-year deal this offseason. This is the type of stretch where Horford will have to earn his money.
“I think coming here I expected to play a little more at the four,” Horford said, “but I also know that one of my strengths as a player is to be able to play inside, play outside, play the four, play the five, guard different positions on the court. I was expecting it. I knew wherever I'm needed — I feel like that's one of the strengths that I bring to a team, that I'm able to do different things.”
With Embiid out, this is exactly the type of performance the Sixers needed. Horford played bully ball, scoring in the post (17 points) and protecting the rim (two blocks). He also showed off his skill, dishing out six assists and going 2 of 3 from three. The versatility is part of the reason Brand signed Horford. Stealing him away from the rival Celtics was another.
But what you saw tonight — and what you’ll see over the next few games — is the real reason he was brought here.
Embiid will have surgery to repair a torn radial collateral ligament of the fourth metacarpal on his left hand Friday in New York. The team said he will be re-evaluated in 1-2 weeks.
In his young NBA career, Embiid has played in 189 of a possible 448 regular-season games, according to ESPN Stats & Info. It was a given that Embiid was going to miss time this season — whether it be because of load management or an injury.
For most of the season, Horford’s offensive issues haven’t been with Embiid out of the lineup. Five of his top seven scoring games have been when Embiid hasn’t played. Finding his role playing alongside Embiid hasn’t been smooth. Brett Brown has been steadfast in saying that Horford’s role is to space the floor next to Embiid.
That’s different from what Horford has done throughout his entire career. When he was the third overall pick for Atlanta, he became one of the focal points of the Hawks’ offense. Even during his time in Boston, he was a huge part of what Brad Stevens liked to do despite his scoring numbers dipping a bit.
While Embiid is out, he’ll get to do some of the things that made him so good at his other stops.
“I don’t know, I don’t pay much attention,” Brown said pregame, “but I feel like the questions I get asked, people have to understand in that old world as of 24 hours ago with Joel, he’s not featured as much. It’s just part of being on a good team. And he accepts it. To now play him and feature him more in things that we all know he’s quite good at, capable at, just in a more frequent environment, then I think positives can come out of this. When we do get Joel back in the mix, hopefully we got some good things to look at [with] Al Horford in the rearview mirror.”
Defensively, it’s been a struggle for Horford at times as well. A big concern when Horford signed was his age and the basketball mileage he has on his body. At times, he’s looked every bit of 33. Other games, like Christmas Day against the Bucks and Thursday against the Celtics, he’s looked like a defensive stalwart.
Horford admitted after the win over Boston that the team has changed the way he’s defended pick-and-rolls and it’s helped. Against the Celtics, he was impressive when he got switched out onto wings Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. He looked as spry as he has all season.
There was plenty of inherent risk in signing a 33-year-old big man to a four-year deal. There were plenty of people questioning Brand's decision and the criticisms seemed fair during the four-game losing streak. But Horford could make Brand look awfully smart over the next several games.
There’s no doubt it’s been an up and down season for Horford. The version we saw Thursday is what the Sixers paid for.
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