Al Horford is poised to play a key role in the Celtics’ push for a Championship

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The Celtics

“It’s like he came in and turned 25 today.”

Al Horford has played a key role in Boston’s last two wins against Golden State and Toronto. Nell Redmond/AP

Al Horford has put a ton of miles on his 36-year-old frame.

Between the regular season and the playoffs, Horford recorded 1,134 games in his 16 professional basketball seasons. Once a star forward, Horford has become a seasoned veteran on the Celtics’ roster.

But amid those reps, the power forward’s dynamism hasn’t diminished this season.

For good reason, considering the veteran big man was two wins away from his first NBA title last year.

The 2023 Celtics have the same championship aspirations, only higher.

Jayson Tatum is the MVP favorite. Jaylen Brown is ready for another offer from the stars. Marcus Smart stepped up his game as a facilitator. Malcolm Brogdon added another stalwart to the bench.

But if the Celtics are going to mount another title run, they’ll need Horford’s defensive prowess to arm them for the challenges ahead.

Horford has stepped up his role in Boston’s potential championship push in the C’s last two matchups against the Warriors and Raptors.

With so much talent on the wing, the Celtics aren’t the team that does the most damage in the paint. By extension, Horford is often listed as a regular offensive channel on Joe Mazzulla’s side.

But against smaller teams, Horford still has the ability to make shots and score points. Look no further than Boston’s win over the Warriors on Thursday, with the Celtics beating Golden State 52-30.

Horford became the beneficiary of that mismatch, especially when Steve Kerr dropped Kevon Looney from his starting lineup.

With no chance to counter Horford, the Celtics big man celebrated. In the first quarter alone, Horford scored 10 points and grabbed five rebounds, shooting his team 39% from the field on the night.

“I joked with Al that he came in and it’s like he’s 25 today,” Tatum said after the game. “Two days off, I told him he needs two more days off because he came out and set the tone. He really did. We all watched it for the rest of the night. And he was big for us the whole game, hit a big 3 late, but the way he started it set the tone for us the rest of the game.

Boston will welcome Horford’s offensive contributions when opportunities arise. But the University of Florida product’s main duties on the field are centered on his defensive ability.

Horford also showed his presence against the Warriors on the other end of the court, including a strong shot against Jordan Poole.

Saturday’s road tilt in Toronto wasn’t productive for Horford offensively. After posting 20 points and 10 rebounds against Golden State, he sank just two of 10 shots against the Raptors.

But in crunch time, Horford blocked multiple scoring opportunities for Toronto, forcing a pair of jumpers against Pascal Siakam and Scotty Barnes.

Unlike momentum-changing blocks or timely shots, some of Horford’s defensive contributions don’t count toward the box score.

But when the stakes are high in the playoffs, that extra jump ball or attempted layup on a player out of the paint can mean the difference between a series win or a season-ending loss.

“The end of the game is to beat the clock,” Horford said after the game, per MassLive’s Souichi Terada. “You have to shake things up, Joe and I were talking outside. He just said, ‘Hey, win this game for us.’ I had to find a way to make all possible games. At this point, you’re just trying to win.

Horford made the play the Celtics needed to quell a potential scrimmage for Toronto.

With the Raptors trailing by two with 3.8 seconds left on the clock, Horford pulled the ball away from Siakam after halftime. The steal secured Boston’s ninth straight win.

Horford spent little time celebrating the win.

At the final buzzer, Horford ran off the court and into the tunnel before his teammates realized what had happened.

Why the rush? Horford responded on Twitter later that night.

That work ethic hasn’t been lost on Horford. The aging striker is still not keen on hoisting the 18th banner over the garden rafters.

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