Healthy Horford Huge for the Celtics
BOSTON -- One of the least-discussed story lines of the up-and-down first half of the season for the Boston Celtics was the subpar play of big man Al Horford.
Boston 107, Miami 99
The five-time All-Star’s lack of production was partly related to the fact he had been working his way back into form from knee soreness that kept him out for seven straight games in December.
It could also be attributed to Horford simply not playing well. It’s hard to knock Horford, a true professional who impacts the game in many ways and doesn’t often wow you with stats, but his per-game averages in 2018-19 had been comparable to the run-of-the-mill NBA starter and his impact had hardly been felt.
In a turn of events certainly welcomed by the Celtics, Horford has looked a lot more like himself as of late. His 16-point, 12 rebound, four-assist, three-block performance Monday night played a major role in Boston’s 107-99 win over the Miami Heat at TD Garden. It was the fourth straight victory for the Celtics (29-18), who are now a season-best 11 games over .500.
Horford has averaged 17.8 points and 7.8 rebounds on 65.9 percent shooting during the winning streak. His season averages entering Monday were 12.1 points and 6.2 rebounds. He says it’s all about feeling healthy again.
“I feel much better the past couple of weeks,” said Horford. “Therefore my minutes are also up and it just feels good to have no restrictions. Longer minutes helps me, I feel like it helps our team. It’s positive.”
There’s no denying the Celtics are a much better squad with a 100 percent (or close to it) Horford. Superstar guard Kyrie Irving continues to play phenomenal basketball. He delivered 26 points (11-for-19), 10 assists and a career-high eight steals, becoming the first Celtics player to record that line since Larry Bird did so on Feb. 18, 1985. It was Irving’s third double-digit assist effort in the last four contests, and his two-man game with Horford, which often results in clean looks for Horford on the pick and pop, has been a dominant weapon.
Monday night was just Horford’s fourth double-double of the season. In the first 10 games after he returned from his injury on Dec. 23, he was playing about 25 minutes per night, which was recommended by the C’s medical staff.
“I think our medical staff did an unbelievable job,” said Horford. “As a player, you want to be out there playing and you want to play through stuff, and I’ve done that in the past. They really sat me down and were like ‘no, this is the right thing and you will see the difference.’ I’ve noticed the difference and it just feels really good to have myself be healthy and be able to play at a high level.”
Horford was plus-30 in the win over Miami (22-23), the best on the Celtics. The game was tied 50-50 at the half, but Boston blew it open in the third quarter when Horford scored 10 points to help the Celtics outscore the Heat 37-18 in the frame.
“I think Al has played really well in this stretch and I think it’s coincided with an increase in minutes, which I think has been a good thing for all of us,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, who got his 250th win. “He feels great, so the whole thing of progressing him through the month of December at the appropriate pace has paid dividends.”
While Horford and Irving were joined in double figures by Jayson Tatum (19 points, six rebounds) and Marcus Morris (17 points), Boston’s bench struggled mightily. It allowed Miami to cut the deficit to five (99-94) with 4:32 remaining.
Stevens inserted the starters back in to close the game out, and Irving took care of the rest with six points in less than two minutes to make it 105-95 with 2:36 left.
“I know what I am supposed to be doing, being aggressive. That’s pretty much it,” said Irving. “Just trying to make plays for myself and my teammates. The ball is in my hands and I just have to make the right plays.”
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