Given the extraordinary talent on the Celtics’ roster, sacrifice in some form is inevitable. No one on the Celtics’ roster has welcomed the idea of sacrifice more than Al Horford.
Prior to the 2023-24 season, Horford had come off the bench just 12 times in his career, starting in 1,168 of his 1,180 career games. The 16-year vet had also never come off the bench as a member of the Boston Celtics.
But when the Celtics acquired two All-Stars in the form of Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday over the offseason, Horford assumed a new role in his NBA career – coming off the bench, a role that is taking some time to adjust to.
Horford accepted the bench role looking to do whatever he could to help his team win. Regardless of whether he is a starter or not, Horford is going to play a major role in the success of the Celtics due to his ability to fill any role necessary.
“Everybody talks about sacrifice and being a team-first guy, but he's the true definition of that,” Jayson Tatum said following Wednesday night’s 117-107 over the Philadelphia 76ers. “Somebody that has, I think, been to the playoffs every year he’s been in the league, five [or] six-time All-Star. He’s done it all, won a national championship twice in college. He could have an ego, he could be reluctant, but he’s always going to make the right pass, always going to give the extra effort.”
Horford has embraced his role of doing whatever he can to help his team win. With his team shorthanded on Wednesday night – missing Jaylen Brown and Kristaps Porzingis – the Celtics needed guys to step up, and Horford answered the call as he was inserted back into the starting lineup and delivered his best game of the season.
There was no easing into things for Horford as he assimilated back into the starting lineup, drawing the challenge of defending the reigning MVP, Joel Embiid – a matchup Horford won.
You're never going to completely shut down Embiid, however, Horford and the Celtics did a fantastic job holding the five-time All-NBA selection to a season-low 20 points.
Horford, who has been selected to an All-Defensive team once in his career, was all over the court Wednesday night. The 37-year-old turned back the clocks, recording a game-high five blocks and contesting a team-high 15 shots.
Two of Horford’s five blocks came at big points in the fourth quarter. The first, Horford had a rejection on Tyrese Maxey and then assisted Derrick White on a three-pointer.
The second, Horford swatted away a layup attempt by Robert Covington that led to the Jayson Tatum dagger.
“It starts with Al. We can’t have the type of culture and the type of team and the thing that we have without a guy like him. For him to come off the bench in some games and then when his name is called to play the way he did in that second half,” head coach Joe Mazzulla said postgame.
“He came up to me, he missed a three on the right wing, and asked me if he should have cut to the basket, and I said ‘No, you should’ve shot it faster’ and then he shoots one in the corner. When you can empower him and when he’s ready to go, it just makes us a different team. He’s in that list of when he plays hard, he inspires everybody.”
Thankfully, Horford listened to Mazzulla when he told him to keep shooting, as Horford, knocked down three shots from behind the arc in the first five minutes of the third quarter, fueling a 15-7 run to reclaim the lead, a lead the Celtics never gave it back. Horford finished the night with a season-high 14 points on 5-of-9 (55.6%) shooting.
At a brisk 37 years old, Horford stepped up big in a game where the Celtics needed all the help they could get.
“Al is amazing. Everything he does out there. I’m just thankful to be his teammate,” Derrick White said postgame. “Seeing the work he puts in day and day out, it’s inspiring. You can see why he’s played for 17 [years] now. Every time he’s out there, he does good things for us and just competes. It's amazing to have him as a teammate.”
Even while averaging a career-low in minutes, points, and rebounds, Horford’s value to the team is immeasurable.
“The most inspiring thing for me as a coach is to watch him,” Mazzulla said.
When asked why it’s inspiring to watch Horford Mazzulla explained, “He’s Al. One, he’s two years older than me, so I get to coach a guy that’s older than me, that’s fun. Secondly, he’s one of the most selfless, humble people that you have. Literally, he will do anything to win. We can’t do what we do as a team if you don’t have a guy like that at the top.”
Horford, now on his second stint with the Celtics, was in Boston when Tatum was drafted at the age of nineteen. At the time, Horford was a 10-year vet and took Tatum under his wing.
“[Horford] was somebody that really took me under their wing. I just always remember he periodically, at random times throughout my first year, would ask me how I’m doing, how I’m adjusting,” Tatum recalled postgame. "[Horford] was somebody I really respected in the way that he went about his work. He was never late, always on time, always getting his work in the gym, always taking care of his body. I learned a lot from him from a routine standpoint.”
Now, Tatum is a 25-year-old superstar, and Horford has left a lasting impact on his young career.
“As I’ve gotten older, our relationship has grown,” Tatum said. “It’s based off respect and the respect that I have for him, and likewise. We know that we need each other. ... That’s who I sit next to on the plane. Al is like my favorite teammate I’ve ever had.”
Horford has experienced constant success in his 16-year career, reaching the playoffs 14 times. However, Horford is still looking for his first championship. With time running out for the 37-year-old, that could be some added motivation for the Celtics to get the job done this year before it’s too late for Horford.