Al Horford Feeling & Playing at his Best as C’s Hit Stretch Run

TORONTO – The Boston Celtics have had the most successful offense in the Eastern Conference for more than two months now, owning a 114.2 offensive rating since Dec. 23.

Dec. 23 also happens to be the date that Al Horford returned from a knee injury that had sidelined him for more than two weeks.

The correlation is no coincidence.

Boston’s offense is at its best when Horford is healthy. The healthier he is, the more aggressive he can be. And an aggressive Horford can be a nightmare for the opposition.

“He just puts the defense on their heels,” teammate Marcus Smart commented Monday afternoon following Celtics practice in Toronto. “When he’s aggressive, it’s just another option for us, another threat that really makes us hard to contain on the offensive end. We need that from Al.”

Since returning from the knee injury, Horford has averaged 13.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game while shooting 54.9 percent from the field, 39.5 percent from 3-point range and 91.7 percent from the free-throw line. It’s worth noting, however, that he was on a minutes restriction for about a month after returning, so that’s just based off of just 27.8 minutes per game.

As the restriction was gradually lifted, Horford’s numbers began to increase. Over the last 12 games, he’s averaged 15.7 PPG, 8.6 RPG and 5.2 APG. And over the last four contests, those numbers have jumped to 20.0 PPG, 10.3 RPG and 5.3 APG.

The most notable jump is in the scoring category, and that’s because Horford’s shot attempts have been on the rise. Over the last four games, he has averaged 16.0 field goal attempts, ranging from 12 to 21 attempts during that span. Previously, he had been averaging 10.0 FGA through his first 46 games.

“I think I am being more aggressive,” Horford said of his increase in shot attempts. “But I also feel like I’m getting more looks and opportunities, just the way the defenses are playing us, and I’m just reading the defense and taking advantage of that.”

Those extra looks and opportunities have been created because of a slight tweak that coach Brad Stevens has made in Boston’s offensive game plan.

“We are running more high pick-and-roll. We are doing more things with the two-man game, especially with him and Kyrie,” explained Stevens, whose Celtics will close out a three-game road trip Tuesday night against the Raptors. “Kyrie gains a lot of attention off that, so Al’s going to get more attempts.”

Those attempts have been connecting at a high rate of late, largely thanks to Horford’s regained health.

“Al feels better,” Stevens said. “You can tell Al looks a lot better. He’s just played really well for the most part for the last two months. I think it’s all due to the fact that his knee is better.”

Working his way back to full strength required patience from Horford, as he abided by his minutes restriction all the way through the middle of January. Though, looking back, it was certainly worth it.

“I think it was the right decision from our medical staff to have me sit out those games and ease me back into it,” Horford said in hindsight. “I feel like it really worked for us and I feel as good as I’ve felt all year physically.”

It sure is showing, as the healthy, 32-year-old vet is playing his best basketball at the most important part of the regular season.

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