Celtics’ Al Horford willing to sacrifice with bench role, focused on impacting winning

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Al Horford has played 1,180 games in his career – regular season and postseason combined – with 1,168 starts. That includes starts in all 429 games he’s played in five seasons with the Celtics. Horford has stated in the past his preference is to start, and his consistent play throughout his career has justified that.

“For me as a competitor, I want to be in a position that I’m playing when it matters most,” Horford said in 2021. “I do like to start. That’s just the reality. As a competitor I try to feel like I contribute and be a great asset.”

Two years later, though, the equation has changed. This offseason, the Celtics added Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday, two All-Star level players still in their prime, to form arguably the most talented roster in the league that also includes, of course, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Derrick White.

While Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla has not committed to a starting lineup – a narrative he feels is being overblown – the fresh look means Horford may be primarily coming off the bench for the first time in his career. The 37-year-old is just fine with that now.

“I just think that, the type of team that 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. And I’m in a position right now that I feel like we all can impact the game in a positive way and sometimes the best thing for a group right now is to play in that way. There will be times that we’ll play big and we’ll do things like that. But for me, I’m in a good position where I’m at and just staying locked in and ready to go.”

As Horford suggested, the Celtics will likely go back and forth between their small lineup (which includes Holiday and White in the backcourt) and double-big lineup (which includes Horford and Porzingis) throughout the season based on matchups and player availability. In their penultimate preseason game, Horford came off the bench and thrived in the role as an energy creator with several hustle plays.

Mazzulla has downplayed the importance of who starts given that lineup only lasts about five minutes. But there is still an ego check involved with sacrificing and accepting a role off the bench – see Malcolm Brogdon last season – and typically the starters play in that spot to maximize their impact. Sacrifice has seemed to be an important focal point of this preseason, whether it means one of the top six is not starting or not finishing.

“I have the utmost respect for Al,” Tatum said. “If Al can come off the bench at this stage of his career, nobody should have anything to say if you’re the guy that’s coming off the bench or Joe takes you out of the game or if you don’t finish. And everybody has to have a team-first mindset to accomplish what we’re trying to do.”

Horford, entering his 15th season, will likely sit out the second end of back-to-backs again like he did last season as the Celtics try to preserve his best for the playoffs. Even then, he seemed to wear down during the Eastern Conference Finals last season, so it would make sense to dial him back some in a reserve spot. But at this stage of his career, after coming so close to a title over the last two seasons, it doesn’t seem to bother Horford. His role may change, but his goal remains the same.

“We’re all looking at the same thing, trying to accomplish the same thing,” Horford said. “On that particular day (on Tuesday) it was obviously to win the game and that’s our focus. So for me, it’s seeing how I can impact winning. That’s always my focus.”

An extra focus

The Celtics ranked near the bottom of the league in turnovers forced last season, and that seems to be a focus going into this season. Horford said Mazzulla has been demanding the Celtics be more active on the defensive end. It showed in the box score in Thursday’s preseason finale as they forced 22 steals in the win over the Hornets.

Mazzulla said he looked through every box score last season and one big takeaway was that the Celtics were out-shot in most games but because of their shot quality they won games more often than not, and when they didn’t shoot well, they lost. Mazzulla asked himself, how can the Celtics continue to have a high shot quality but eliminate the variance of, “if you don’t make shots, we’re not going to win”? He said it’s by creating extra possessions through offensive rebounding and forcing turnovers.

“We have to eliminate the luck of the percentage at times with our shooting and we have to create easy baskets, whether it’s with offensive rebounding or forcing turnovers and deflections,” Mazzulla said. “We had 22 steals, 24 turnovers, 26 deflections and those lead to easier baskets. I think the correlation of our shot margin and our defensive activity and our offensive rebounding is an area of growth for our team from last year and something we have to continue.” …

The Celtics officially waived center Wenyen Gabriel and guard D.J. Steward on Saturday.

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