How Al Horford turned his losing seasons into a Celtics success story

Poison was in the air, hissing from the faithful of Philadelphia. Such was the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center who long despised Al Horford as a member of rival Boston Celtics and then wrestled with his emotions for Horford as he signed with the 76ers for a disappointing 2019-20 season. This was where Horford chunkily fit alongside Joel Embiid, to the point where Daryl Morey’s front office quickly moved the veteran big man to Oklahoma City after a season of Philadelphia’s failed supersize experiment — before another trade Horford finally did reunited with the Celtics and the city that really felt like home.

In all the excitement surrounding last Saturday night’s affair at the top of the Atlantic Division, Horford remained scoreless in the first half in South Philadelphia. He missed all three of his looks from beyond the 3-point line. Jayson Tatum struggled to find his rhythm. Embiid, on the other hand, bumped and squeezed and twisted and faded to 41 mammoth points, Horford’s chest feeling the brunt of the MVP candidate’s bulldozers into the paint. The Sixers extended a 67-52 lead by 8:30 to play in the third quarter. Shortly thereafter, Boston’s trusty Dominican came to life.

He didn’t hesitate as Tatum blasted a pass across the timeline, found Horford on the right wing and 76ers’ PJ Tucker rushed his direction. Horford rocked the ball over his head with his mechanical motion and fired the first of four crucial threes that got the game rolling. On the next possession, Horford corralled a Sixers miss and pushed the ball to the top of the button. He pushed off De’Anthony Melton, also unconcerned about a nearby James Harden, and dumped another from distance to cut Philadelphia’s lead to 75-68.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 25: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics watches against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center on February 25, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Celtics defeated the 76ers 110-107. NOTICE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this photograph, the user agrees to the terms of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Al Horford’s value to the Celtics goes beyond simple gameplay. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

The Sixers called a timeout, but Horford broke free after another Celtics stop, burying a catch-and-shoot three-pointer from the left corner to complete a 9-0 run all by himself. The 36-year-old spun to face the naysayers who were spewing rubbish his way and barked at onlookers just beyond the edge of the woods. A younger man’s leap was evident in his step. “I like it,” Horford said after the game. “I took it as respect. I didn’t have my best game offensively. I feel like that kind of got me going.”

He would connect with another treble to help Boston forge an 80-78 lead. And it was Horford who hit the go-ahead triple with just over 90 seconds remaining, giving the Celtics a 105-103 lead in their eventual 110-107 win.

“Al, when he’s at his best, he has confidence and doesn’t take any shots,” said Boston head coach Joe Mazzulla. “And we can’t afford that.”

“He’s just doing a phenomenal job of just keeping you level-headed,” Celtics forward Grant Williams told Yahoo Sports. “I feel like he’s the calm one in the group, probably because he’s been through everything. His ability to have that, even in our struggles for discipline, our struggles for mental toughness… he has that.”

The fact that he’s here, once again wearing Celtics green and fourth behind the reigning Eastern Conference champions within minutes, was a remarkable resurgence, running amid Boston’s rise to a menacing competitor. After that difficult season with the Sixers, rival executives seemingly left Horford’s trade value for dead. Skeptics worried about his perimeter mobility and defense of pick-and-rolls in space. For three years, $81 million remained for the lucrative deal Philadelphia praised in his direction. The Sixers had to attach a 2025 first-round pick, their recent No. 34 draft pick of 2020 in Theo Maledon, as well as the rights to Vasilije Micic — an intriguing European point guard who flirted with NBA teams last summer — just that to lose Horford’s contract off their books in exchange for, most importantly, veteran shooter Danny Green.

Horford fled Boston for a greater chance at the NBA championship that eluded his successful career, instead ending up in the early stages of a rebuild in Oklahoma City after the talented tandem Russell Westbrook and Paul George left. “I had to change my attitude about being over there,” Horford told Yahoo Sports. “But the organization was great. It’s really allowed me to grow as a player and have perspective.”

He entered Thunder’s player development lab, where the staff at OKC approached the veteran with the same guidance as their young talents. Assistant coach Dave Bliss schooled Horford in the tricky nuances of defending modern pick-and-roll schemes. The Thunder wanted Horford to practice shifting along the perimeter and launching jumpers on the move, rather than being rendered into the corner or stationed over the arc like he was doing while observing Embiid’s post-touches.

“Going through that, my biggest thing was just focusing on the moment and making the best of it so that the next opportunity I get, I’m ready to make the best of it,” Horford said. “For me, I’ve always believed in what I can do. That has never wavered. But I wanted to show what was said about me, right? For me it was just good to come to a good place and really the place I wanted to be was Boston.”

After 28 games, Oklahoma City positioned Horford on the touchline. Returning to Atlanta with his family for the 2021 offseason, The Thunder sent him workouts and a program to prepare his aging body for an inevitable trade toward a win. “This time was very valuable for me. I kept training. Off the court, working on my body. Agility, trajectories, lifting, things that I worked on in college and got away from,” Horford said. “OKC’s plan was very beneficial to me. Then, as the summer progressed, I started building on the plaza.”

In June, it was Boston that dialed Oklahoma City in search of a jetty to park the last two years of the $141 million contract Kemba Walker signed right after Horford’s departure for Philadelphia. Tatum and Jaylen Brown had gone from young phenomena battling Kyrie Irving for ballhandling opportunities to two-way All-Stars marching to the Eastern Conference Finals the year before and beating Horford’s Sixers in the opening round. A circuitous path had wound its way back to where it would never have had to branch off again.

“Honestly, I think for me I’m just grateful. It’s more gratitude than anything,” Horford said. “Just to have the opportunity to be back in that position where I can show what I can do, how I can play, how I can influence the team. For me that’s the biggest thing. I am very grateful for this opportunity to be back in Boston.”

Horford was an integral part of Boston’s run to the 2022 NBA Finals. When he first signed with the Celtics in 2016, Horford was tweeted 18 emojis of a shamrock, a direct nod to Boston’s quest for the 18th banner in franchise history. Celtics teammates credit him with whispering certain messages during timeouts or retreating to Boston’s huddle to highlight their individual skills and their value to the Celtics’ common goal. “I’ve said it a million times: Al has been one of the best teammates, one of the best guys of my career since Day 1,” Tatum said. “Love the big guy.”

Horford is shooting a career-high 43% from beyond the arc while seeing the most game action every night since the 2017-18 season. In December, he put pen to paper and signed a two-year extension with Boston to ensure there is no ambiguity about where his heart beats, unlike there was four summers ago.

“I believe everything happens for a reason. For me, there was a lot of growth involved in those two years that I was away and those two seasons. I have a clearer picture of what I am, where I want to be, what we are trying to achieve here. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to sign this extension early in the season. I just wanted to clear up rumors because I knew a free hand was coming and there would be questions. I just wanted to make sure the Celtics knew where I was and that was where I wanted to be.” How Al Horford turned his losing seasons into a Celtics success story

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