Way back on Nov. 12, well before the coronavirus was impacting all facets of life, Al Horford took a night off.
It did not appear a massive development at the time, though Horford said “there was definitely some pushback” on his end about the concept of load management.
He rested again on Nov. 29 against the Knicks. Horford also missed games on Dec. 12 and Dec. 13 because of left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness, and sat out Jan. 30 in Atlanta with left knee soreness.
While playing 60 of 65 games looks fine on paper, Horford on Friday admitted he was not at his best physically this season.
I probably wasn’t where I wanted to be,” he said. “I’m not going to make excuses but right now I’m in a much better place. The time off for me was beneficial. And getting to work now, the biggest challenge for us with the season coming back is doing everything at game-intensity level.
“Going from not being able to get in the gym to start working out individually, and when we get to Orlando, we’ll start doing it together and then a quick transition to games — it’s really a process. So for me it’s really making sure that I continue to make strides and that I’m at my best, more specifically when the playoffs are ready to go.
For Horford, a veteran who tends to prefer keeping things close to the vest, it was a notable comment. While much of the disappointment about his first season with the Sixers so far stems from Horford’s well-documented struggle to be effective alongside Joel Embiid, his health is another factor to consider.
Horford dealt with patellar tendinitis in his left knee last season with the Celtics. He’s 34 years old. At times this year, he appeared to have limited remaining supplies of explosiveness and agility. None of those realities are excuses, as Horford himself said, but they’re all relevant in thinking about Horford’s future with the team.
In the short term, Horford again faces questions about what his role will be for the Sixers when the season resumes in Orlando and whether he’ll come off the bench. He was diplomatic on that subject, as usual.
“For me, I just want us to be playing well and playing at a high level,” he said. “I’m going to continue to work … I do know that for us to be successful I have to play with Joel sometimes, I have to play with different people. It really doesn’t matter. I just think that this time off is going to benefit all of us, especially for Ben (Simmons), being able to be healthy now and being able to come in and have an impact. I really don’t think that’s going to matter that much, in my opinion.
“The way I’m going to look at it is I’m going to make the most of my situation, stay prepared, stay ready. Coach will have to decide how and when to play me, how much to play me, and I just have to be ready.”
A recurring line for the Sixers before the coronavirus hit the United States was that the team was “built for the playoffs.” Brett Brown used it again Wednesday, and Horford is still fond of it, too.
I think it’s a great opportunity for our team,” Horford said. “The way the season was going, before it stopped, we had some positives. We got it going there toward the end, we felt, especially that last game we played. Ben’s future was uncertain, and now he’s going to be good to go. We have our full team and our full roster. I believe that our group is built for the playoffs. The regular season is always tough. We have new guys and everybody trying to mesh, but I believe this is a second chance for us and a great opportunity.
The Sixers do indeed have a healthy team, with the exception of Zhaire Smith, who will miss the rest of the season with a bone bruise in his left knee.
There are also, of course, gray areas during a season when players are able to play but below optimal health. It seems Horford fell into that category at times, and he’s surely not the only NBA player who will be fresher and feel better physically as a result of the hiatus.
We shouldn’t forget that he was playing well before the season was shut down, with the major caveat that he thrived when Embiid was out for five games because of a left shoulder sprain. Horford averaged 15.8 points, 9.0 rebounds and 6.2 assists in the Sixers’ last six contests.
He has not deviated, however, from believing that those distant regular-season performances matter much less than the postseason.
“I do believe that there’s another level in the playoffs as far as the quality of the basketball goes,” he said. “My mindset is to make sure that I’m at my best on Aug. 17, when the playoffs start.”
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