When the Sixers signed Al Horford this offseason, there was excitement, but there were also questions.
The excitement was over stealing a damn good basketball player from a rival. The biggest question: How would Horford and Joel Embiid coexist on the floor?
Horford had spent a good chunk of his career at the five. When he played the four, he never played next to a big as unique and as talented as Embiid. Most of Horford’s best performances as a Sixer have come with Embiid off the floor. In fact, Horford’s top-three scoring games have all come with Embiid out of the lineup.
The last few games — including Monday night’s 103-94 win over the Jazz (see observations) — have been a sign that perhaps Horford is beginning to get comfortable.
“I think so. And shame on us if we think this is all going to happen just because he’s good,” Brett Brown said. “He’s prideful and he cares, and he’s trying to fit in. He’s not a pig scorer — he’s a teammate. So, him trying to find his place where he can make a difference on this team comes — I’m assuming through his eyes; it feels like it through my eyes — with a level of care. He’s trying to navigate this whole new city and this whole new team with an element of class and care. I think that he’s done that.”
Horford was instrumental in getting the Sixers off to a fast start Monday. The 33-year-old was perfect from the floor, going 2 of 2 from three and 5 of 5 overall in the first quarter.
Something that’s seemed to get Horford in a better groove lately is running basic pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops. With Horford’s ability as a screener, a roller and his ability to hit shots from the outside, he’s an ideal player to put in those actions.
He said postgame that it’s something that’s allowed him to have success in the past and has helped him get to his spots recently — which seem to be the elbow and the elbow-extended three.
“I do believe for me to get to some of the things that I do well it's helping — the pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll,” Horford said. “And coach is making a conscious effort of implementing that in the offense and putting me in positions to play in that and attack the defense that way. So I just need to — myself and the rest of the guys — we need to continue to get comfortable with one another and understand what we're trying to get to, what we're trying to get out of those pick-and-roll situations. And we're reading and we're doing a good job with that.”
Though he cooled off as the game went on, Horford continued to show his value.
As Embiid’s backup, the Sixers don’t lose nearly as much as they have in the past. Horford’s mobility at the five has also allowed the Sixers to play a different style.
Ben Simmons looks to push the basketball on nearly every possession. Brown has had his teams play at a breakneck pace from the moment he got here. Even as he’s ushered in the “bully ball” era, he’s wanted Simmons to get out in transition, where he’s as dangerous as any player in the league.
It also allows the Sixers to show teams different looks throughout the course of a game.
“Coach has been emphasizing that he wants us to play faster when Joel is off,” Horford said. “And I think that's the strength of our team, to kind of keep the defense on their toes. We can go bully ball, we can execute in the half court, and then we have another look where we can just get out and run and create chaos that way. So, I think it's a strength of our group to be able to do both.”
The experiment hasn’t been perfect and there will likely be more growing pains along the way, but there’s plenty to be encouraged about 21 games into the season.
“I'd probably say like a B-minus,” Horford said when asked to grade where he is with Embiid. “I still think there's a lot of work for our group in general — I'm not saying me and Jo, I'm saying for the group in general. We're making strides, but we're not where we need to be. And we just have to continue to work. The good thing is that it's only December. I do feel like we're starting to understand how coach wants us to play and we're getting better each game.”
And with each game, looking a little more comfortable.
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