Max effort: Al Horford showing he's worth his salary this postseason

BOSTON -- Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens loves to run his team's offense through his bigs, but this wasn't necessarily what he had in mind.

Early in the second quarter of Game 1 on Sunday, Al Horford plucked a missed layup off the rim and took off sprinting the other way. Washington Wizards swingman Kelly Oubre tried to stop the break as quickly as it started, but Horford dribbled right through him at Washington's free throw line, and the Celtics had numbers as Horford crossed the center stripe.

If it weren't sacrilege to compare a Celtics player to Magic Johnson, we might suggest here that Horford showed signs of Showtime when, catching two retreating Wizards on their heels, he zipped the ball across his body to Marcus Smart in the left corner for a 3-pointer.

Horford finished one rebound shy of a triple-double in Game 1 against Washington, as he put up 21 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds in Boston's 123-111 triumph at TD Garden. Horford became the first center since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1995 to finish with at least 20 points and 10 assists in a playoff game.

Horford has been nothing short of spectacular this postseason. He's averaging 16.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, 7 assists, 1 steal and 0.6 blocks over 34 minutes per game. He is shooting 62.7 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. The Celtics own a net rating of plus-9.7 points when he's on the floor in the postseason.

Ever since he arrived in Boston in July, Horford has maintained that he's still getting comfortable with the Celtics, especially after he spent his first nine NBA seasons with the Atlanta Hawks.

When Stevens was informed Monday that Horford said after Game 1 that he has finally found the best way to impact Boston's offense, the coach smiled and pondered the suggestion.

"I’m glad we’re still playing then," Stevens quipped.

Just how good has Horford been this postseason?

Let's start here: Of the 44 players in the playoffs with at least 75 plays finished, Horford ranks No. 1 while averaging 1.27 points per play, according to Synergy Sports data. He's fractions of a point better than San Antonio cyborg Kawhi Leonard (1.268), and the rest of the pack is farther back.

Not only does Horford rank as one the postseason's top spot-up shooters, but also he's far and away the best roll man in these playoffs, having shredded the Chicago Bulls while working the pick-and-roll game with teammate Isaiah Thomas. Horford is averaging an absurd 1.667 points per play as the roll man, per Synergy data. For comparison, Horford is comfortably ahead of Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, who finished the playoffs at 1.541 points per play after leading the NBA in roll man points per play with nearly the same mark during the regular season.

Synergy also has a metric called "plays + assists," a measure that rewards those who also create offense for teammates. It typically benefits point guards, but because Horford is averaging a team-best seven assists per game this postseason, it further enhances his overall efficiency.

Of the 106 players with at least 40 plays + assists in the playoffs, Horford tops the list at 1.681 points per play, per Synergy data. The nearest competitor, Golden State's Draymond Green, is 0.187 points behind.

"There are times throughout the game where I don’t even bring the ball up. We let Al do it," Thomas said. "We know he’s going to make the right play. He has a high basketball IQ. I’ve said it since Day 1: Even if he’s not scoring the ball and even if he’s just out there, he allows everybody to be their best. He spaces the floor. He knows where guys are gonna be on both sides of the floor. He’s a really high-level player."

It is not a coincidence that Thomas wiggled his way into MVP conversation in the same season that Horford arrived in Boston. Horford's presence has opened up the floor for Thomas, and Horford's passing skills have helped Thomas emerge as one of the league's truly elite offensive players.

There were times throughout the 2016-17 season when screaming pundits, both nationally and locally in Boston, wondered out loud if Horford is worth the four-year, $113 million maximum-salary contract the Celtics signed him to in July. "The Celtics are paying $28 million per year for THIS?" they shouted while noting that Horford averaged just 14 points on 47.3 percent shooting during the regular season.

The criticism bothered Horford's teammates, who were adamant that his impact couldn't be measured by his base stat line, especially considering that it didn't speak to his presence on the defensive end.

Now Horford is putting up more notable numbers, and the Celtics think people still don't realize what he means to their success.

"Al’s had a great playoffs," Stevens said. "He played really well a lot for us all year. We’ve talked a lot about how it doesn’t always get brought up in the stat sheet, and sometimes I think a guy like him, averaging 15 points, is like other guys averaging 25, for what he means to our team.

"He’s been great. He’s been really good."

Horford has brought playoff experience to a fledgling Boston team that hadn't advanced out of the first round the past two seasons. With nine postseason appearances and 84 playoff games under his belt before this season, Horford was one of the few in Boston's locker room who had experienced success in the postseason.

Thomas has been excellent, especially considering the grief he's playing through after the loss of his sister, and Avery Bradley had a monster first round on both ends of the court. But Horford's impact this postseason should not be overlooked, especially given how important he should be against the Wizards the rest of this series. Yes, the guard play on these two teams will be in the spotlight, but Boston's success could ultimately hinge on how well Horford plays.

Horford's teammates certainly recognize his impact.

"He's seasoned, that's for sure. He brings a lot of veteran leadership," Jae Crowder said. "He's been through a lot. He's just prepared for each game and takes what the game gives him. He doesn't force it. He takes what the defense gives him, and he does it at a very high level. We ride him a lot. We depend on him a lot -- not just in the box score, just his leadership. It's very key for our team."

Added Bradley: "That’s Al. He’s the leader of our team. What he’s done is big for us. He’s been here before. He’s a seasoned player and understands what it takes to be consistent, to play hard for one another. A guy who plays the right way all the time is contagious, and I really enjoy playing with him."