Portrait of an All-Star: Celtics' Al Horford making underrated excellence his calling card

This is the final piece in a four-part series looking at NBA All-Stars in different stages of their careers as the All-Star Game approaches. | The underdog | The veteran first-timer | The perennial star

BOSTON – In January 2010, Al Horford was a third-year forward doing what any 20-something NBA star does before the All-Star break — finalizing plans to go somewhere else. Horford was playing well, and though he thought he had a decent chance to make the All-Star team (“50-50 that year,” Horford said), he wasn’t counting on it. So he called a friend to talk about potential vacation spots. That friend had a friend who worked in the league office — which is how Horford found out his All-Star Weekend was already booked.

“I was ready to say, ‘Hey, let’s start looking at hotels somewhere,’ ” Horford told Yahoo Sports. “But he just said to me, ‘Man, you made it! You’re on the team!’ ”

Horford is a familiar face at All-Star Weekend now — Sunday will be his fifth appearance — but just like in his first year, Horford never counts on it. All-Star spots often go to stat stuffers; Horford has never averaged 20 points per game. All-Star nods go to stars who can do the spectacular; Horford’s best weapon is a midrange jump shot.

Al Horford can score when he needs to but is known for his defense. (AP)

Where Horford is appreciated: Boston, where he is enjoying another, well, Horford-like season — 13.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists. Another common thread: Horford’s team is winning. The Celtics — who have scuffled some the last few weeks — are 40-19 with a No. 1-ranked defense of which Horford is the leader.

Like everything else, Horford’s defense doesn’t show up on the stat sheet — he’s averaging a little more than a block per game, and he’s never been a high-level defensive rebounder. But he’s an elite communicator, which helps a 19-year old rookie (Jayson Tatum) and a 21-year old swingman (Jaylen Brown) stay in the right positions. And he is a masterful pick-and-roll defender. “A lot of names get thrown around, rightfully so, in defensive talk around the league,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “There’s a lot of really good defenders, but Al’s up there and doesn’t always get mentioned. That’s OK with Al. I think that he’s proven that he’s OK with just contributing to winning whether he gets talked about or not.”

It’s true. Standing in front of his locker this week, Horford said he was honored to be an All-Star. At 31, Horford has a young family now, and his son, Ean, will be by his side for much of the trip. He said he will ask Stephen Curry — the captain of Horford’s All-Star squad — what pick he was drafted. But Horford is quick to pivot back to the Celtics, to the final two months of the season, to how Boston can shake out of its recent funk and rediscover the airtight defense that defined the first two months of the season.

“I play for my team,” Horford said. “I play to win. Whatever happens, happens. Now, if I’m getting recognized, it’s because [voters] understand what I do, what I bring, not necessarily the numbers. But when it’s over, we have to get this right.

“I used to get caught up in being an All-Star. Now, I just let it be.”

On Sunday, Horford likely won’t make the highlight reel. But he just might do something to help Team Steph win.

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