By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Even though the season is barely a week old, there’s certainly been a lot going on with the Boston Celtics.
Gordon Hayward’s injury rocked the team just minutes into the new year, and his recovery will be a big talker until he steps on the floor again next season. A pair of promising stars of the future have picked up the slack and shined, commanding much of the spotlight. Kyrie Irving’s video game moves on the floor and exacerbating comments off of it have also garnered quite a bit of attention.
But as usual, in the background and steady as ever, is Al Horford. At 31 and with a decade of NBA experience under his belt, he’s the elder statesman on the third-youngest team in the NBA. He doesn’t light up the scoreboard on a nightly basis, which gets irrationally criticized given his $30-million salary.
Horford doesn’t need to stuff the box score every night to have a positive effect on the Celtics. He’s their floor general on both ends of the floor, and a calming voice among a slew of young players and a collection of rookies. Even if he doesn’t drop 20 points a night or pull down double-digit rebounds, he remains the glue that holds the Celtics together.
On Thursday night in Milwaukee, he did indeed fill out an impressive line while leading Boston to a W. Horford turned in one of his finest performances in a Boston uniform, matching his team career-high with 27 points off of a crisp 11-for-14 shooting. He hit four of his five bids from downtown, including back-to-back makes from long distance late in the third quarter, turning a 63-59 Bucks lead into a 65-63 Celtics advantage. He snagged rebounds before both of those triples, two of his nine boards on the night.
Horford scored 13 of his points in the third, closing the frame with some perfect execution of “Brad Ball” ahead of the buzzer. With 0.5 seconds on the clock, Brad Stevens drew up a baseline alley oop, with Kyrie Irving finding a Horford for an easy bucket. It gave the Celtics a three-point edge heading into the games final frame, en route to their 96-89 victory.
Asked about those momentum-changing triples, Horford was quick to pass the praise to his teammates for getting him the ball. He lauded Smart’s vision for feeding him on that first three pointer, and for creating space for him on the second. In true Horford fashion, he didn’t take credit for actually hitting the shots.
But more impressive than his outburst on the offensive end was Horford’s near dominant evening on defense. Two nights after frustrating the Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis, Horford was tasked with guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s a nightmare matchup for anyone in the NBA, but Horford kept the Greek Freak in check for much of the evening. The early MVP favorite still scored a game-high 29 points, but did so on 10-for-21 shooting. That “off night” dropped Antetokounmpo’s shooting percentage to 62 percent for the season, which goes to show just how good he’s been to start the year.
On Thursday night, Antetokounmpo wasn’t so much a freak but more just another large human trying to put the ball in the hoop. He still got to the basket with ease on some possessions, but Horford made him work for most of his buckets. He forced him to settle for a number of tough jumpers, and Antetokounmpo even stepped back for a trio of three pointers, hitting two. One of the few deficiencies in his game, Antetokounmpo had attempted just six triples before Thursday night.
Put it all together and it was the all-around effort we’re used to seeing from Everyday Al. Even though those performances sometimes get overlooked when that production doesn’t reflect on the stat sheet, it’s certainly never lost on Stevens, who has been on a quest the last week to get Horford the proper recognition he deserves.
“He was great on both ends of the floor. He guarded Giannis a large part of the night and I thought he did a great job on him,” Stevens said after the win. “Then, obviously there were the big threes at the end of the third and then the big tip-in going into the fourth. That gave us a little bit of momentum.”
Horford said slowing down Antetokounmpo was not easy, but he feels he did his best, which is the norm from No. 42 every night. Asked about his defensive play the last few games, Horford again deferred the adulation to those he shares the floor with.
“I think coach does a good job of preparing us. As a group, we’ve done a good job. [Aron] Baynes has been unbelievable. I can go out there and chase those guys around but know that if I get in a jam that he’s got my back. It’s just been nice to see,” he said. “I feel like all our guys have stepped up to the challenge and we’ve done a good job of defending.”
The Celtics have won three straight, with Horford averaging 18.7 points and 10.3 rebounds while also playing some stellar defense. In a season that has been anything but predictable for the Celtics, the one thing they can always count on is Horford leading the way in his quiet but efficient fashion. He does it in a number of different ways, none of which are very flashy, but he’s always there, holding the team together and making life easier for everyone else on the floor.
Horford isn’t one to seek out praise, and is quick to pass it along. But it’s time he’s recognized as the important piece that he is, the glue that holds it all together.