Forsberg: Playoff Al offers a reminder of what's to come


Colloquially, he’s dubbed, Playoff Al.

It’s the level-up that occurs most springs for Boston Celtics big man Al Horford. But, on occasion, Playoff Al makes cameo appearances during the regular season.

Those visits tend to be little reminders that, when it matters most, Horford will be there. Age can erode some of his consistency but, in the biggest moments, Horford is usually the one stiff-arming Father Time.

Like during the Bucks series as part of Boston’s Finals run last year. The Celtics’ season was on life support in Game 4 against the Bucks but Horford delivered a wild dunk that floored Giannis Antetokounmpo and propelled Boston to a come-from-behind victory.

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Twice in the last three days we’ve seen glimpses of Playoff Al. First, in a Finals rematch with the Warriors, Horford provided the early energy en route to a 20 and 10 performance that included three blocks and one jump-in-the-time-machine, pump-fake-and-drive dunk.

On Saturday night in Toronto, Horford didn’t have his shot. He missed eight of the 10 field goals he attempted, including a couple of bunnies around the basket. But with the Celtics playing shorthanded — Jayson Tatum was resting, while Robert Williams III, Marcus Smart, and Derrick White all departed early due to injuries — Horford saved his finest moments for when it mattered most.

Here’s a quick rundown of everything Horford did in the final 8.6 seconds of a one-possession game in Toronto:

1) Defended a Pascal Siakam drive, blocked his layup attempt, and forced a jump ball.

2) Won the tip on the jump ball with Siakam and scrambled to force a second jump ball with Scottie Barnes.

3) Won the tip on the jump ball with Barnes, whose standing vertical was measured at 36 inches at the draft combine, to give Boston possession.

4) Stripped Siakam at midcourt with 0.6 seconds to play. Final score: Boston 106, Toronto 104.

Horford sprinted off the court after the strip and straight up the runway toward the locker rooms. Why was he in such a hurry?

He’d later Tweet that he was headed to get in his postgame lift.

By numbers alone, Horford is having an unremarkable year. His rebound and assist rates are career lows. His usage is half of what it was in his All-Star prime. His Player Efficiency Rating is not only below league average, but nearly five points below his career output.

Joe Mazzulla noted Saturday that, “the box score doesn’t tell the story” with Horford. In fact, he thanked Horford for “saving my ass” in the final moments. Horford has embraced a floor-stretching role and is shooting a career-best 43.2 percent on 4.8 3-pointers per game. For much of the season, Horford has been the league’s best shooter from the right corner.

When the team operated without Williams III at the start of the season, Horford held down the back line. Now Williams III is back and the team has embraced the double big lineup that was such a juggernaut a year ago. The Celtics play some of their best defense with Williams III now able to fly around with help while Horford does his typical dirty work around the basket.

Individually, Horford has thrived as a defender. Yes, he has his moments where opponents punish him with their quickness but, more often than not, he’s stout against a variety of assignments. Entering Saturday’s game, Horford was holding opponents to 6.3 percent below their expected output, which was the best mark on the team. What’s more, opponents were shooting 11.6 percent below expected inside of 6 feet, per the NBA’s tracking data.

Horford was so good at the start of the year that the Celtics rewarded him with a two-year, $20 million extension. There are some days that he shows his age, or simply blends into the box score scenery a bit, and there are grumbles about how effective he might be at an even more advanced age.

Mazzulla is quick to point out all the intangibles, especially the quiet locker room leadership. Horford’s presence alone allows Williams III to thrive, while the young stars of this team have an obvious respect for all that Horford offers.

In part because they know that, when it matters, Horford will be ready. And these little glimpses the past few days are just a reminder of how Playoff Al can impact winning in the biggest moments.

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