Tomase: Once playoffs arrive, Al Horford anything but average for Celtics

John Tomase
April 16, 2018 - 11:42 am
Al Horford

Paulr Rutherford/USA Today Sports

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Al Horford has a rep in these parts, but it's incomplete.

The "Average Al" part of the equation is well known and not without merit. Horford isn't a take-charge offensive player over the course of 82 games because it's not his style. He facilitates, he plays defense, he makes open shots, he scores in the pick-and-roll. Clearing out for Al generally ain't a thing.

Our very own Lou Merloni catches flak for this take every time Horford goes off for 22 and 10 or falls an assist shy of a triple-double. Who's average now, Lou!!? But Horford's supporters conveniently choose silence when he follows 22 and 10 with 2 and 6, as he did in a February by beating the Blazers with a fallaway at the buzzer and then delivering the aforementioned nothingburger in a 20-point loss to the Raptors.

The truth lies in the middle. No one's saying Horford's average all the time. That's the critics' frustration. On occasion, he's brilliant. It's just the brilliance isn't as consistent as his defenders would have you believe.

But there's another facet to his game that deserves its own nickname, because once the playoffs arrive, so does All-Star Al.

Sunday's Game 1 victory over the Bucks provided yet another brick in that wall. With the Celtics trying to figure out how to overcome the 1-2 punch of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, Horford stepped forward.

It's hard to argue on the surface that he asserted himself when he only took eight shots, but in that regard the box score is misleading. Horford attacked mismatches from the opening possession, when he backed down the Greek Freak and sank a short hook for the first points of the night. He kept right on attacking them in the post for the rest of the game, using his 6-foot-10, 245-pound frame to bully smaller defenders.

His shot total stayed low only because the Bucks kept fouling him, and Horford made them pay on that account, too. A .783 free throw shooter during the season, Horford sank 13-of-14 in Sunday's 113-107 victory, and the Celtics needed every one of them. Horford went 5-for-6 in the final minute of regulation; one more miss would've given the game to the Bucks.

"We wanted to post him," said head coach Brad Stevens. "We wanted to make him play in the post, and make Giannis defend down there, and I thought Al did a good job. He earned all 14 free throw attempts, I know that. I thought Al battled. I thought everybody on both sides looked a little gassed at the end of overtime. I'm not sure anybody was more tired than Al, because he put in an incredible effort for us."

When it was over, Horford had once again taken his game to another level in the postseason. He finished with 24 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, three blocks, and two steals. It's hard to envision him making a bigger impact.

But this, too, is what Horford does. Last year he helped carry the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals as their most consistent player. Before the Celtics shut down Isaiah Thomas and basically surrendered to the Cavs, Horford averaged 16.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 5.8 assists a game while shooting .639 from the field and .583 on 3-pointers. He was a monster.

It shouldn't have surprised anyone, because this, too is Al being Al. With Kyrie Irving leading the brigade of injured talent that won't play this postseason, the Celtics will lean on Horford now more than ever.

If the recent past is any indication, he's up to the challenge.

"We're going to ride Al," Stevens said. "It's just – he's been unbelievable in being a facilitator for us all year. He has his moments because of the way that we're being defended, where he gets to be more of a featured scorer. With where we are now, he's going to be more of a featured scorer, and facilitate, and guard Giannis, and do everything. He'll probably run our film session tomorrow."

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