What, exactly, has gotten into Al Horford? A year ago, the beloved Celtics big man was off in NBA Siberia, having been drummed out of Philadelphia and dealt to the career holding patterns known as the Oklahoma City Thunder. Boston brought him back to the Celtics this summer as a way to be rid of oft-injured point guard Kemba Walker, and it seemed there would be a nice story attached, too: Horford returning to Boston after regrettably leaving as a free agent in 2019.
Maybe Horford could offer some production. Most likely he would play some, but it seemed he was destined mostly be a mentor to the Celtics’ younger guys.
That was the thought, at least. Instead, he has been a defensive stalwart for a Celtics team that just held back-to-back opponents under 80 points for the first time since 2012, a strong response to early-season turmoil. Horford has led the way, and it is getting noticed around the NBA.
“He looks seven, eight years younger out there,” one East scout told Heavy.com. “The way he is moving, the weak side help defense, all of it. He is so smart, one of the best IQ big men in the league. But it is the way he is moving, we have not seen that from him in a long time. I mean, did he change his diet? What’s he on? Because I want some.”
Horford foresaw a defensive improvement coming from Boston even as the team struggled earlier in the week:
I’ve always taken pride in defending. That’s always been a staple of my game. And I feel like that kind of sets the tone for our group in general, that’s how we need to be. We need to take pride in defending and doing the dirty work. And understanding that, if we do that, we’ll be in a good position most nights to be able to win the game.
Horford Incredibly Leads the NBA in Blocks
Horford is leading the league in blocked shots, at 3.0 per game. He is not supposed to be doing that at age 35, especially considering he has never been a guy known for his leaping. Horford protects the rim with smarts and long arms, but still, 3.0 blocks per game is out of character—he averaged 0.9 blocks over the last two years and never topped 1.5 blocks per game in his 15-year career.
“I just think [the blocks] are just a result of our awareness and the way that we’re playing, making sure that we’re having each other’s backs out there,” Horford said, according to Celtics.com. “Whether it’s coming up the help side or if it’s a 1-on-1 matchup, we’re taking the challenge defending.”
Indeed, through seven games, the Celtics lead the league in blocked shots, at 7.2 per game. For all the Celtics’ struggles this year, the defense remains good, allowing 43.3% shooting on the season, sixth in the NBA.
Horford’s Defense Shows Up in On/Off Stats
Center Robert Williams has been active on the shot-blocking front, too. He is averaging 2.1 blocks per game. But Horford’s experience has been invaluable for Boston so far.
In fact, Horford’s on-off stats—a measure of how the Celtics do when Horford is on the floor vs. off it—are off the charts defensively. When Horford is playing, the Celtics hold opponents to 98.8 points per 100 possessions. When he is on the bench, opponents score 113.3 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
And Horford is not doing that with his explosive athleticism.
“Using his length, using his mind,” coach Ime Udoka said, according to the Boston Globe. “Rob has been good as well, but a few games early in the season, we weren’t coming across helping. We’ve been night and day as far as that as a team. But [Horford]’s a veteran presence and he knows how to use his body. Last game with six blocks, obviously that was a huge number, but he’s affecting so many more shots and he’s coming across and rebounding. So, he’s been great this year.