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

Venom was in the air, hissing from the Philadelphia faithful. This was the Wells Fargo Center crowd that long despised Al Horford as a member of the rival Boston Celtics, then wrestled with its emotion surrounding Horford once he signed with the 76ers for a disappointing 2019-20 campaign. This was the court where Horford fit clunkily next to Joel Embiid, to the point Daryl Morey’s front office quickly moved the veteran big man to Oklahoma City after one season of Philadelphia’s failed supersized experiment — before another trade finally reunited Horford with the Celtics and the city that truly felt like home.

Under all the commotion of last Saturday night’s affair atop the Atlantic Division, Horford went scoreless during the opening 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, meanwhile, was bumping and bruising and spinning and fading into 41 mammoth points, Horford’s chest feeling the brunt of the MVP candidate’s bulldozes into the paint. The Sixers built a 67-52 lead with 8:30 to play in the third quarter. Soon after, it was Boston’s dependable Dominican who came alive.

He didn’t hesitate when Tatum rocketed a pass across the timeline, found Horford on the right wing, and the 76ers’ PJ Tucker charged his direction. Horford cradled the ball above his head with his mechanical motion and fired the first of four crucial triples that swung the game’s tide. The very next possession, Horford corralled a Sixers miss and pushed the ball to the top of the key. He jabbed off De’Anthony Melton, wasn’t concerned with a nearby James Harden either and drained another from distance to trim Philadelphia’s lead to 75-68.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 25: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics looks on against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center on February 25, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Celtics defeated the 76ers 110-107. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Al Horford's value to the Celtics goes beyond simple game play. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

The Sixers called timeout, but Horford got loose after another Celtics stop and buried a catch-and-shoot three from the left corner to complete a 9-0 run all by his lonesome. The 36-year-old whipped around to face the naysayers spitting junk in his direction, barking back at the onlookers just beyond that edge of the wood. The bounce of a younger man was evident in his step. “I like it,” Horford said postgame. “I took it as respect. I wasn’t having my best game offensively. I feel like that kinda got me going.”

He’d connect on another triple to help Boston claim an 80–78 lead. And it was Horford who hit the go-ahead triple with just over 90 seconds to play, which gave the Celtics a 105-103 lead in their eventual 110-107 victory.

“Al, when he’s at his best, he’s confident and he’s not passing up shots,” said Boston head coach Joe Mazzulla. “And we can’t afford him to.”

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

The fact he’s here, once again donning Celtics green, fourth in minutes on the reigning Eastern Conference champions, has been a remarkable resurrection running underneath Boston’s rise into a menacing contender. After that trying season with the Sixers, rival executives left Horford’s trade value seemingly for dead. Skeptics worried about his mobility on the perimeter and defending pick-and-rolls in space. There were three years, $81 million remaining on the lucrative deal Philadelphia lobbed his direction. The Sixers needed to attach a 2025 first-round pick, their recent No. 34 selection of the 2020 draft in Theo Maledon, plus the rights to Vasilije Micic — an intriguing European point guard who flirted with NBA teams last summer — just to shed Horford’s contract from their books and primarily receive veteran shooter Danny Green in return.

Horford fled Boston for a greater chance at the NBA championship that has eluded his decorated career, and instead landed amid the early stages of an Oklahoma City rebuild after the departure of the talented tandem of Russell Westbrook and Paul George. “I had to shift my mindset being over there,” Horford told Yahoo Sports. “But the organization was great. It really allowed me to grow as a player and have some perspective.”

He entered the Thunder’s player development laboratory, where OKC’s staff approached the veteran with the same tutelage of their young prospects. Assistant coach Dave Bliss drilled Horford on tricky nuances of defending modern pick-and-roll schemes. The Thunder wanted Horford to practice relocating along the perimeter and launching jumpers on the move, instead of being rendered to the corner or stationed above the arc as he did while watching Embiid’s post touches.

“Living through it, my biggest thing was just, like, focusing on the moment, making the most out of that, for when I got the next opportunity to be ready to make the most of it,” Horford said. “For me, I always believed what I could do. That never wavered. But I did want to show the things that were being said about me weren’t it. For me, it was just good to get to a good place, and really the place that I wanted to be, that was Boston.”

After 28 games, Oklahoma City positioned Horford on the sidelines. He returned to Atlanta with his family through that 2021 offseason, and the Thunder sent him workouts and a program to ready his aging frame for an inevitable trade toward a winning situation. “That time for me was very valuable. I continued to train. Off the court, working on my body. Agility, movement-wise, lifting, things that I worked on in college and had gotten away from,” Horford said. “OKC’s plan was very beneficial for me. Then as the summer started to progress, I started building on the court.”

By June, it was Boston that dialed Oklahoma City, searching for a jetty to park the final two years of the $141 million contract Kemba Walker signed right after Horford departed for Philadelphia. Tatum and Jaylen Brown had blossomed from the young phenoms battling Kyrie Irving for ball-handling opportunities into two-way All-Stars who’d marched to the Eastern Conference finals the year prior, slaying Horford’s Sixers in the opening round. A circuitous route had circled its way back to where it never had to diverge.

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

Horford was integral in Boston’s burst to the 2022 NBA Finals. When he first signed with the Celtics in 2016, Horford tweeted 18 emojis of a shamrock, a direct allusion to Boston’s search for the 18th banner in franchise history. Celtics teammates credit him for whispering specific messages during timeouts or retreating back to Boston’s huddle, highlighting their individual skill sets and value to the Celtics’ common goal. “I’ve said it a million times: Al’s one of the best teammates, one of the best guys from 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 each night since the 2017-18 season. In December, he put pen to paper, signing a two-year extension with Boston, to make sure there was no ambiguity of where his heart lies as opposed to 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 gone, and those two seasons. I have a clearer picture of what I am, where I want to be, what we’re trying to accomplish here. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to sign that extension early on in the season. I just wanted to put rumors to rest because I knew that free agency was going to come and there was going to be questions. I just wanted to make sure the Celtics knew where I was standing and this was where I wanted to be.”