NBA Finals: Why Celtics big Al Horford embraced 3-point shooting for career longevity

SAN FRANCISCO — Boston Celtics center Al Horford doesn’t have the prettiest shooting form, but the end results are to be respected.

The Golden State Warriors should have a new level of respect for the distance in which the 15-year veteran can launch it. Horford was one of the NBA Finals’ Game 1 heroes, producing a team-high 26 points and shooting 6-of-8 from beyond the arc to lead the Celtics to a 120-108 victory on Thursday.

The 3-point weapon he possesses wasn’t always in his arsenal. In fact, the big man said he never desired it to be a part of his game. He had to be nudged into the possibility, and the nudging began as early as his second year in the league by former Atlanta Hawks general manager Rick Sund.

“Rick is the one that told me, ‘Man, you have a really good mid-range. You should start shooting corner threes, that’s going to help extend your career,’” Horford told Yahoo Sports as he was leaving Chase Center after practice Saturday. “I used to be a banger down low and posting up. He was like, ‘Man, you’re not going to last in this league if you keep playing like that.’ Rick Sund was the first to tell me.”

That conversation took place during the 2008-09 season, well before today’s analytic trend of most players being given the green light to hoist 3-pointers.

Sund saw something in Horford that many hadn’t realized yet.

“I remember our conversation very well. We were discussing if he’d be more suited as a four-man or a five,” Sund told Yahoo Sports via phone. “I believed and relayed that it would be to his advantage to develop into a stretch-five and draw guys away from the basket. I told him to work on that corner three and he’d really be an effective five-man. I also told him he’ll have a great opportunity to make the All-Star as a stretch-five. This is just what I saw.”

Boston Celtics center Al Horford shoots against the Golden State Warriors during Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Finals at Chase Center in San Francisco on June 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn)
Boston Celtics center Al Horford shoots against the Golden State Warriors during Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Finals at Chase Center in San Francisco on June 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn)

Horford said he understood where Sund was coming from, but he was reluctant to add the 3-ball due to how it would be perceived by fans, teammates and the opposition.

“Coming into the league, I never imagined shooting the 3-ball. I definitely was on edge at times when I began attempting threes in games,” Horford told Yahoo Sports. “Players start looking at you crazy. You know how we are in the league, like, ‘Hell, nah. He’s trying to shoot threes?’ So it was that type of thing you had to deal with.”

Horford saw up close the reaction of Hawks fans when fellow frontcourt mate Josh Smith — who was a career 28.5% 3-point shooter — would let threes fly to the chagrin and moans of fans as he’s releasing. It took Horford time to fully embrace the idea.

In his first eight seasons, he shot a total of 65 triples. During his ninth season, he committed to it and was 88-of-256 for a respectable 34.4%. Throughout that season he still wasn’t confident in his shot, but he credited two former teammates for building his confidence.

“My teammates were very surprised when I started shooting them, but two big influences for me were Kyle Korver and Pero Antic,” Horford told Yahoo Sports. “Both guys encouraged me to shoot the ball. And any time I shot it in the game and I looked at them to see their reaction, they were very supportive and comfortable with me shooting. So mentally for me, that was a big deal.”

Sund said current Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer deserves some credit.

“When Bud came to Atlanta, he was more open to thinking outside the box, and he also encouraged Al to shoot threes and the rest is history,” Sund told Yahoo Sports. “Every player that Bud coaches plays so much better than when Bud wasn’t there. Look at Pat Connaughton in Milwaukee, Paul Millsap with us, Khris Middleton. He did it with Al, too.”

After the Celtics eliminated the Miami Heat and Horford — who is shooting 46.3% from beyond the arc this postseason — advanced to the Finals for the first time in his career, he received a text from an individual who believed in his skills before he did.

“I was so happy for him. I texted him congratulations and just told him how proud I am of what he’s accomplishing,” Sund told Yahoo Sports. “What people don’t realize is that he doesn’t have the ball in his hands long. He’s not a ball-stopper. He keeps it moving and then he’s always moving, which is rare for a big man. He’s a five-man version of Steph [Curry]. Because he’s not a ball-stopper, it allows him to open up the floor for everyone else. He’s just a great asset for any team. I’m glad to see him having success.”

Before Horford hopped on the bus to exit the arena, he had a parting message.

“Rick was right. I think I have gained extra years by adding the 3-point shot,” Horford told Yahoo Sports. “I’m just grateful.”