Boston Celtics: Surprising benefits from Al Horford’s injury

Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images /

All-Star center Al Horford has been diagnosed with patellar tendinitis, but it could be a blessing in disguise for the Boston Celtics.

The Boston Celtics are filled to the brim with personalities. From the energetic and chaotic on-court presence of Marcus Smart, to the very much woke and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe member Kyrie “Little Mountain” Irving, to world traveler Jaylen Brown, the Celtics have no shortage of characters.

The most understated personality, however, belongs to the steady-handed presence of Al Horford. Not enough can be said to credit the All-Star forward’s accomplishments. He has played in three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals, he was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team last season, and has been named an All-Star five times. He has also become a veteran presence of leadership for the Celtics.

Now, however, he has been diagnosed with patellar tendinitis, and while he is listed as day-to-day, head coach Brad Stevens has said Boston will “go slowly” with Horford. While losing their veteran leader is not an ideal situation, it could actually be a blessing in disguise for the Celtics.

It’s no secret that Boston is one of the deepest rosters in the NBA. In fact, the Celtics possess so much depth that in their most recent contest against the New Orleans Pelicans, they were able to thoroughly outclass their opponent despite Horford, Irving, Aron Baynes and Gordon Hayward all being inactive. The reps given to rookie big man Robert Williams were a highlight of that game in particular.

Williams is affectionately known as the “Timelord” by Celtics fans. It is a nickname that has become pervasive even among Boston media, as NBC Sports Boston created a graphic highlighting the nickname for the game against the Pelicans. Cs fans were, of course, extremely excited to watch Timelord get extra reps in the absence of Horford. He did not disappoint.

In a matchup that many believed would be a “welcome to the league” moment for the rookie, who was matched up against Anthony Davis for 32 possessions Monday night, Timelord had different ideas. He held Davis to 15 points on just 7-of-17 shooting with two “clockblocks” on a night where Davis wound up pouring in 41 points.

The reps for Timelord never would have existed in a universe in which Al Horford’s patellar tendon isn’t damaged. Williams had been relegated to the end of the bench for the majority of the Celtics’ first 25 games, entering almost exclusively in late-game blowout situations and spending some nights on G League assignment with the Maine Red Claws.

While it’s understandable that Williams wouldn’t get a ton of second unit reps given the Celtics’ immense depth, nights like Monday will be extremely beneficial if Boston makes a deep playoff run. Also beneficial for a deep playoff run will be Horford’s rest.

Father Time is undefeated, no matter what LeBron James or Tom Brady say. At 32 years of age and in his 12th NBA season, Horford will need to be on the freshest legs possible when the calendar flips to April and May and (hopefully) June.

Missing one of your best players for a stretch in December is incomparably preferential to missing one of your best players for a playoff series against, say, the Philadelphia 76ers. In fact, keeping Horford healthy for a potential playoff matchup against the Sixers should be one of the Celtics’ highest priorities.

Horford’s dominance of Joel Embiid in last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals has been well-documented. The stingy defense against one of the league’s premier centers carried over this season, as Horford allowed just 10 points from Embiid on 31 defensive possessions in Boston’s only matchup with Philly this season.

The other aspect of Horford’s injury is that, despite his intangible presence in a leadership role, he simply hasn’t been himself for much of this season. It’s possible and altogether probable that he’s been playing at less than 100 percent all year.

Injury would certainly help to explain his 3-point percentage being the lowest of his career since he started attempting at least one 3 per game. It would also add reason to his posting the lowest scoring average since injury derailed his 2011-12 campaign in Atlanta.

Horford underperforming and missing time is not what the Celtics hoped for this season, but an elongated rest period can be relatively easily buoyed by Boston’s immense depth. The Cs know better than most teams how to weather injury, after being nicknamed the “Hospital Celtics” when they lost Hayward, Irving, and Daniel Theis to injury last season.

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They also know how important it is for rotation players to gain experience in the regular season, as Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier all benefited from experience to give the Celtics a deep playoff run a season ago. As long as Horford is able to return to the lineup fully rested and healthy in the near future, the Celtics will be perfectly fine.