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Gary Washburn | On basketball

Celtics need Al Horford to revitalize his shooting game

Al Horford has struggled to score this season but the Celtics need his touch around the rim and they need him to hit open 3-pointers.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Turns out the Celtics need Al Horford more than they thought they would when he returned to the organization this summer.

Horford got off to such a rousing start this season, giving Celtics coach Ime Udoka and the club the impression he was nearly the same player who left Boston five years ago.

What’s more, Horford scored in double figures in 13 of his first 15 games and hardly looked like an aging, 35-year old forward-center who has been in the NBA since the second George W. Bush presidency.

His second stint with the Celtics has taken a downturn, however. Horford has struggled mightily to score. His 15-point performance in Saturday’s 114-112 comeback win against the Chicago Bulls, a surge that avoided what would have been another disheartening loss, was his first double-digit scoring output in 10 games.

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The Celtics are looking to Al Horford to score more often.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The Celtics need Horford to score. They need his touch around the rim, and more importantly, they need him to hit open 3-pointers. When Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown drive and dish, Horford is going to be left open. He needs to make defenses pay.

Yet, since Horford became a 3-point threat in his final season with the Atlanta Hawks seven years ago, his 28.8 percent clip is the lowest of his career.

Since going 4 of 8 in the Dec. 27 Celtics loss at Minnesota, Horford is 6 for 33 from the 3-point line. That has prompted teams to essentially leave Horford alone at the 3-point line, daring him to shoot, daring him to make one. He canned a corner three in the third quarter and added six more field goals, the first time since Dec. 3 that he made as many as seven shots in a game.

The Celtics have had enough issues to overshadow Horford’s decline, but his struggles have perhaps been one of the most impactful on their inconsistent season. With Marcus Smart taking fewer shots and also experiencing a career-worst season at the 3-point line and Robert Williams being mostly a dunker, the Celtics need a reliable third scorer in their starting lineup.

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Horford being a 3-point threat helps the Celtics spread the floor and makes navigating in the paint easier for Tatum and Brown.

He attempted just one shot in the opening quarter Saturday but then went on a second-quarter surge, scoring 8 of Boston’s 10 points as it built a 50-43 lead. The first three shots were short jumpers and then he confidently canned a 20-footer.

Al Horford shoots over Indiana's Myles Turner during a recent game at TD Garden.Darron Cummings/Associated Press

“Early on for me, sometimes all it takes is one basket, one comfort shot,” Horford said. “Dennis [Schröder] I believe found me in the post, I turned around and hit a jumper and felt good after that and kept it going from that point.”

What is evident, even at age 35, is that confidence and being included early in the offense is critical to Horford’s success. He can be used as an asset around the basket when Tatum or Brown penetrate and draw defenders.

One of the Celtics’ main issues is they make offense far too difficult at times with their lack of ball movement. Horford was used Saturday as an open outlet when Brown and Tatum drove into the paint. But when he’s standing alone at the 3-point line, he needs to hit those open shots.

“It has been a struggle,” Horford said of his outside shooting. “It’s been very different, especially since I’ve been back from (COVID-19 protocol). I’ve kind of been all over the place with that. I’ve kind of been encouraged, continued to work, stay focused and I feel like I’m turning the corner. I’m happy where I’m at right now. I’m in a much better place.”

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The Celtics lack quality shooters, and those they counted on are having subpar years.

Al Horford has the support of head coach Ime Udoka.Michael Wyke/Associated Press

“You can’t base your decision-making on whether guys are going to make or miss,” Udoka said. “{Struggling shooters] has been the story of this year. I mentioned other than Josh [Richardson] and probably Grant [Williams], guys are shooting below their career averages. You expect some of that to balance out.

“Al hasn’t shot as well as he has in previous years. It’s a matter of mixing it in, not just settling for those [long-range] shots. Getting some offensive rebounds, getting out in transition, getting some easier baskets and not just settling for threes, which he’s done at times. Be confident when the open shots come but also mix in some other things to get yourself going.”

Horford likely didn’t expect such a large role when Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens reacquired him for Kemba Walker in June 2021, but he is important to the team’s fate in the second half of the season. The Celtics lack that traditional stretch-four. There was speculation in preseason that Juancho Hernangomez would push for a starting role at power forward because of his ability to shoot. But he has been buried on the bench and has missed 22 of 27 shots this season in his limited role.

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That responsibility of being the big man to stretch the floor is left to Horford. And he’ll have to be better if the Celtics are to make a push in the Eastern Conference. He believes Saturday may have been the first step of his resurgence.


Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.