Al Horford knows a thing or two about thriving in single-elimination tournaments. And maybe it’s appropriate that Boston’s quest for the inaugural NBA Cup includes a stop in Indianapolis.
Nearly 18 years ago in Indy, Horford helped the Florida Gators to the first of consecutive national titles. Yes, Horford's reputation as a winner is almost old enough to vote and yet, nearly two decades later, he is still reinventing his game.
And still winning.
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We’ve had the entire weekend to digest Horford’s hustle-filled second half against the Sixers and we’re still marveling at his impact. From diving on the floor for loose balls to saving Boston’s backside with a fourth-quarter chase-down block on Tobias Harris, Horford was key in getting Boston to the finish line of a win that sends his team into the knockout round of the In-Season Tournament riding a three-game win streak.
If the Celtics are to get themselves to Vegas, Horford will again be vital to the process. Boston ruled out big man Kristaps Porzingis for Monday’s quarterfinals showdown with the Pacers, which will thrust Horford back into a starting role.
Horford’s stat line has never leapt off the page and this season is no different. While embracing a reserve role after Boston added Porzingis and Jrue Holiday over the offseason, Horford has averaged 7.6 points and 6.6 rebounds over 26.2 minutes per game. He’s shooting just 35.9 percent beyond the 3-point arc -- down from a sizzling 44.6 percent last year -- but has a knack for making the big ones.
At age 37, he’s still a rock on the defensive end. The Celtics post a 104.2 defensive rating with Horford on the court -- which is best on the team -- and that number rises nearly four points per 100 possessions without him.
Horford’s age is invariably referenced each time he lands on the highlight reels. Few players are able to impact winning the way Horford has in his age 37 season, even if he shrugs off most of the queries about how he’s still able to compete at a high level in Year 17 of his NBA career.
Nothing seems to gas up Horford like a matchup with a little extra incentive. That could be seeing Joel Embiid (or just the Sixers' red, white, and blue in general) or Giannis Antetokounmpo on the opposite side. Horford always seems to shift to another gear when there’s a little more at stake.
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The NBA Cup is certainly not Horford’s ultimate goal; he’s still chasing that elusive championship ring. But you suspect that Horford will be just that much more engaged on a bigger stage. Eighteen years later, Horford is still trying to will his team to the Final Four.
Horford logged just 11 minutes when the Celtics throttled the Pacers 155-104 earlier this season. Indiana was without star guard Tyrese Haliburton that night and his presence completely changes a team that sits sixth in the East at 10-8 overall.
As his own star rises, Haliburton has repeatedly stressed his desire to simply win. He told reporters that he’s "tired of being a loser” while stressing the opportunity to compete in the In-Season Tournament but also prioritizing team success over individual accolades.
Few know more about winning than Horford. He’s still hunting the NBA’s biggest prize, but he’s been in the playoffs 14 different times, including multiple deep treks with the Celtics (89 playoff game with Boston alone). With 167 total playoff games under his belt, Horford has two full NBA seasons worth of postseason play.
For the 2023-24 season, Horford has been key to Boston’s ball movement on the offensive end. On the defensive side, opponents are shooting 40 percent when defended by Horford, or a team-best 6.8 percent below expected output, per NBA tracking. Among high-volume players defending at least 10 shots per game, Horford ranks second in defensive field goal percentage (a fraction of a point behind Minnesota’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker).
Now, the Celtics will ask Horford to help contain the NBA’s top offense. A team that’s on a historic pace. But Horford always seems up for the challenge.