Al Horford has started all but 12 of the 1,180 regular season and playoff games he’s played in over the first 16 seasons of his NBA career. Year 17 might have a different outlook the Celtics big man.
Horford played off the bench for the first time over his two tenures with the Celtics in Tuesday’s preseason game against the Knicks, a possible sign of things to come following the Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday trades this offseason.
But making that potential sacrifice is OK for Horford.
“It was definitely fun,” Horford told reporters of playing off the bench in Tuesday’s game. “With our group, we’re gonna be with many lineups and things out there, and it’s just continuing to find ways to impact that game. We’re all looking at the same thing, trying to accomplish the same thing. In that particular game, we were trying to win the game. That’s the focus.
“For me, it’s seeing how I can impact winning. That’s always my focus.”
The first look at the Celtics’ starting lineup without Horford went well. The group of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Derrick White, Porzingis, and Holiday helped the Celtics get off to a 41-30 lead against the Knicks’ backups in the first quarter. Horford contributed off the bench, scoring five points in six minutes of first-quarter action.
The Celtics got into more of a groove in the second quarter of that game, carrying a 78-60 lead going into halftime. Horford ended up playing 23 minutes in that game, which was at least five minutes fewer than what most of the other starters played. But he scored eight points and posted a team-high plus/minus of plus-17.
Horford said that he didn’t change his routine for Tuesday’s game, but said that playing off the bench gives him “a different perspective when I step on the floor and what needs to be done.”
As the five-time All-Star and 37-year-old prepares for a new role, he explained why he was more willing to come off the bench now than he did at any other point in his career.
“The type of team we have, we have a lot of depth. We have a lot of talented players,” Horford said. “One of our strengths is our versatility as a team. So there’s going to be times that we’re going to have to go a certain way. There’s other times that we got to play big, play small, things like that. That’s just the way it is.
“I’m in a position right now that I feel we all can impact the game in a positive way. Sometimes, the best thing for our group right now is to play that way. There will be times that we’ll play big and do things like that.”
It looks like Horford will still get his chances to play in the starting lineup throughout the season. He started in the Celtics’ preseason opener as Holiday was the odd man left out, coming off the bench.
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla has indicated throughout training camp and the preseason that the Celtics will be flexible with their starting lineups, with some speculating that Holiday could be playing off the bench on a regular basis. The Celtics haven’t been shy in using double-big starting lineups since Horford returned to Boston in 2021, often pairing him with the now-departed Robert Williams in the starting lineup. That lineup helped the Celtics emerge as one of the NBA’s top teams over the last two seasons, but didn’t get them over the hump.
Horford appears to be willing to make whatever sacrifices needed in order to win his first title, including playing off the bench.
“For me, I’m in a good position of where I’m at,” Horford said. “Just staying locked in and ready to go.”
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