Horford Squarely in the Spotlight for Celtics on Sunday

April 15, 2018 GMT

One of the major benefits of building an NBA franchise around a Big Three of stars is that it allows a team to have some insurance when coping with injuries.

If you lose one star, you still have two top-level talents to pick up the slack. And if you’re unfortunate enough to lose two stars, you still have that third player who you believe is capable of rising to the occasion and responding positively to the increased responsibility.

To that point, five-time All-Star big man Al Horford is the last star standing for the second-seeded Boston Celtics as they open up their best-of-seven Eastern Conference first round series against the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday at TD Garden (1 p.m.). If the C’s are going to put together a lengthy postseason run, Horford will need to perform at a much higher level than the 12.9 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.7 assists that he averaged in the regular season.


Those numbers were adequate enough for the 55-27 Celtics when Superstar 1 Kyrie Irving was creating a nightly diversion with his outstanding play, particularly on the offensive end. But Irving is now out for the postseason after knee surgery, joining Superstar 2 Gordon Hayward, who has been out since his gruesome ankle injury on opening night back on Oct. 17.

So now a Celtics roster loaded with youth, including potential stars-in-the-making like second-year guard Jaylen Brown and rookie forward Jayson Tatum, will look to Big Al for both leadership and production. But it’s the latter that will most be needed for the Green Team.

“This is what we’ve been looking forward to all year,” said Horford of the playoffs. “It’s finally here and we’re excited.”

In a league where only two-dozen players play in the All-Star Game each year, it’s not easy to have one of those players on your team, let alone multiple. Boston, as injury-ravaged as it is, has that luxury.

It’s a good thing, too, because Milwaukee will be taking the court with a generational talent of its own in sensational 23-year-old forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who averaged 26.9 points, 10.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game for the 44-38 Bucks.

Antetokounmpo was also an All-Star, and you’ll notice a stark difference between his numbers and Horford’s numbers. But Horford has never been a big stats guy. His career-best scoring average was 18.6 ppg with the Atlanta Hawks in 2013-14. In fact, his career averages over 11 seasons are 14.2 ppg and 8.6 rpg.

In you’re mind, you’re probably saying to yourself “seriously? That’s it?”


Horford has his loyal defenders in Boston, who will point to all the intangibles he brings. However, last month, Horford followed a six-point, four-rebound effort with a five-point, six-rebound showing. During a four-game span in November, he had a total of 22 points and he played at least 26 minutes in each game. For some players in some cities, stat lines like that would result in an onslaught of criticism, and it would be fair game. But here, a common sentiment among Green Teamers is that in order to fully appreciate Horford, you have to look past the box score.

There is some truth to that. Horford almost always makes the smart basketball play on both ends of the floor. He’s usually in the right position, and he never shoots his team out of a game. But with a salary of over $27-million for this season, you need to see more than intangibles and solid numbers.

Some players have a knack for turning it up a notch in the playoffs. When the lights are brightest, they’re at their best. Horford has never been that guy. In 92 career playoff games, his numbers nearly mirror his regular season numbers -- 13.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 3.4 apg, 50.2 FG%.

At the age of 31, there’s plenty of time left for Horford to flip that statistical narrative. There’s no doubt that he has the ability to take over any game he’s playing in. We’re talking about an athletic 6-foot-10, 245-pounder who can score inside, put the ball on the floor and knock down jumpers. He made a career-best 97 3-pointers this season and shot a career-best 42.9 percent from deep.

With Horford, it’s all about wanting to take over. It’s in his nature to be the consummate team player, which is why he’s so respected. But if the Celtics are going to win this series and more beyond it, they’re going to need Horford to demand more of himself. He’ll need to be the force he is capable of being.

Last year, it was Isaiah Thomas’ team. For most of this year, it was Kyrie Irving’s team. Someday, it may be Brown’s or Tatum’s team. But this spring, the Celtics need to be Horford’s team.

Follow Matt Langone on Twitter @MattLangone