Celtics’ Horford Credits Health, Irving for Recent Surge
By Steve Bulpett
EVANSTON, Il. -- The face is the same, but the game is decidedly different.
The Al Horford of late is a far better version than the one the Celtics were getting earlier in the season, and while clearly an improvement with his nagging left knee has been the largest factor, the veteran big man credited a teammate with helping alter his attitude.
“I think health is the first thing,” Horford said after Friday’s practice on the Northwestern campus. “And then I think that Kyrie (Irving) has helped me a lot. Him and I spoke, and he’s been very helpful with just telling me to look for my shot and be more aggressive offensively. And that, coming from him, has given me more assertiveness to go out and be that.”
Horford feels more able to do that after dealing with patellofemoral pain syndrome that had him in and out of the lineup. The early uncertainty with the knee took a turn for the better when he was held out for two weeks in December.
In his first 22 games, he averaged 12.4 points and 6.4 rebounds on 49.1 percent shooting. Things improved when he returned from his seven-game break, and over his last 11, Horford is averaging 17.4 points and 9.2 rebounds on 52.9 percent shooting.
Thursday in Milwaukee, he went for 21 points, a season-high 17 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocked shots in the one-point loss. According to Sultan of Stat Dick Lipe, Horford is the fourth Celtics player to hit the 20-17-5-3-3 standard, joining Kevin Garnett, Larry Bird (twice) and Dave Cowens. (Bird’s 28-19-15-3-3 against Atlanta in 1982 stands out.)
Beyond the encouragement from Irving, Horford attributed the change to a couple of other factors.
“I think it was partly us as a team at the beginning of the season trying to figure things out on how we were supposed to play,” he said. “I think it that it took a while even for me to understand how I was going to fit in with everyone. And the knee, that was a real issue for me. Then when we took that time off and we started getting me back into it the right way, I just feel so much better. I feel really good.”
One wouldn’t think a five-time All-Star would be hesitant with his own game, but Horford was taking in the bigger Celtics picture.
“Coming into this year, I’m looking at everybody that we have,” he said. “And I know that I’m an All-Star and all that stuff, but, like, we have Gordon (Hayward) and all the young guys, and I want to make sure that everybody feels good about everything. I just want everybody to play well together and for us to win. And what I started to realize was that I probably need to be more aggressive offensively, and when I do that, we usually play better as a team, as opposed to me kind of sitting back.”
While Horford and Irving sat out the practice after playing 37 and 41 minutes, respectively, Thursday, Hayward (right ankle sprain) went through the full workout and has been listed as probable for Saturday night’s game against the Bulls.
According to Brad Stevens, Hayward’s absence against the Bucks contributed to Irving’s extra load, which was a season-high for him in a regulation game.
“There’s obviously going to be times as we go through the year where you play those minutes, and everybody wants to play a ton,” Stevens said, adding of Irving, “but he’s going to be in the 40s some at times, and at the same time it’s an 82-game season, and if he’s in the 40s every day, that’s a problem. So we just have to manage that appropriately. We’ve always tried to manage minutes with the idea of what we need to look like on April 15, and that’s just part of it. And obviously with a deep team, our goal coming in certainly was to make sure that we’re fresh when the playoffs start.”
As for players understanding their roles as relates to minutes, the coach said that’s been a matter of regular communication with those on the shorter end of the time stick.
“We’ve been doing that all year, and really even before the year,” he said. “But it doesn’t make it any easier in the moment, and that’s the reality of it. I mean, you know that going in, and I think our guys, for the most part, have handled it really well, especially as of late. I always point to the guys that come off the bench for us have all done a good job of handling it. It wasn’t easy for Gordon to make that transition, it wasn’t easy for Jaylen (Brown), it wasn’t easy for Terry (Rozier), but they’ve all handled it well, and I think that’s set a good tone for this run. Obviously our starting lineup has played well, has set a great tone for us, but those guys’ mindset has helped.”
REFS WERE WRONG
The NBA’s Last 2 Minutes report from the Bucks game was pretty interesting. According to the league, Milwaukee should not have been called for a 24-second clock violation leading by a point with 3.5 seconds left. On the game’s final play, four mistakes were found.
First, the league said Irving should have been called for an offensive foul for the screen he set on Khris Middleton. Although the rest would have been moot, the refs should have called Middleton for impeding Marcus Morris. And on Irving’s last drive, the review showed that he was fouled by both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe.