Horford’s Career Effort Guides Celtics Over Suns

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics have had difficulty maintaining offensive rhythm this season due to inconsistent ball movement. With that being said, Al Horford has been doing a fantastic job righting the ship on that end of the floor thanks to his elite playmaking ability.

Saturday afternoon served as the latest example, as Horford dished out a career-high 11 assists to help lead the C’s past the Phoenix Suns, 116-111.

“I’m just trying to play through our offense, make the right plays and try to push the pace,” Horford said after the game. “We wanted to make sure we had some good ball movement. We want to continue to get better as a group moving the ball, and I think today we took a big step in that direction.”

The greatest indication of taking that step was the fact that the Celtics dished out a season-high assist total as a team. Coach Brad Stevens was impressed by that accomplishment considering the force that Phoenix was applying on the defensive end.

“They were really into us,” said Stevens. “They were really pressuring the ball. For us to end the game with 32 assists and nine turnovers was a really positive sign.”

Horford contributed only one of those turnovers, which was impressive considering how much he handled the rock. The 6-foot-10 forward brought the ball up the floor regularly, even when facing a full-court press.

Facing that kind of on-ball pressure does not bother the veteran big man.

“I’ve always been comfortable [carrying the ball up the floor],” said Horford, who also chipped in 14 points and five rebounds. “At (the University of) Florida, with coach (Billy) Donovan, we would do that. Joakim (Noah) and I used to break the press. [Donovan] always gave us that freedom.

“In high school I used to do it and my coach hated it,” Horford added with a laugh. “He was one of those old-school coaches where no bigs should handle the ball. But then in college I got the freedom.”

Horford also got that freedom in Atlanta, and he continues to get it in Boston. He is a match made in heaven for Brad Stevens’ system, considering that the coach loves to be able to play through his bigs.

“The way that the offense is set up, the big guys, we have the ball a lot of the time,” said Horford. “And I have the luxury of handing the ball off to Kyrie and guys that are just knocking down shots left and right. That’s just the way it is. Any of us bigs, we’re handling the ball, we’re going into a dribble-handoff or making that extra pass, and guys are knocking down shots.”

No player is more appreciative of Horford’s playmaking than Irving. As the starting point guard, Irving is expected to have a substantial ball-carrying role, but the option of having Horford handle the rock alleviates pressure off of him so that he can focus more on scoring.

“When I don’t have to bring the ball up, he’s able to initiate our offense and conserve some energy on my end,” said Irving.

As a result, Irving is scoring consistently and efficiently. He’s paced the Celtics in points scored in seven of the last eight games.

Jaylen Brown has also profited from Horford’s playmaking. He was on the receiving end of a tremendous dish during the first quarter Saturday when Horford split two Suns defenders on a bounce pass that fell perfectly into Brown’s hands for an uncontested fast-break dunk.

“Al is super important,” said Brown. “The attention he draws, and his passing ability - it’s special.”

Special, indeed. Horford is proving to not only be one of the best passers on the Celtics, but also one of the best passers in the league. His ability to facilitate Boston’s offense in an inside-out fashion is key for the team’s rhythm on that end of the floor. He demonstrated that point Saturday as he put on a career performance while leading the C’s to their second-highest scoring total of the season.