Over his first eight NBA seasons Al Horford attempted a total of just 65 3-pointers. He worked diligently to add the long-range shot to his arsenal prior to last season, however, and in his final year with the Hawks he fired up 256 threes, making 34.4 percent of them.
For much of this season, Horford has been increasingly reliant on his work beyond the arc. Through the first four months he was averaging 4.2 3-point attempts per game, up from 3.1 a year ago.
His percentage had dipped only slightly from last year, from 34.4 to 33.8, and the Celtics had no issue with Horford firing away. But Horford also realized that his deep shooting was sapping some of the attack mentality that had made him dangerous during a career that has included four All-Star Game appearances.
So over the past month, Horford’s 3-point attempts have dipped significantly. After firing up 4.2 per game over the first four months, he has taken just 1.7 per game in March. And less has been more, as the 6-foot-10-inch forward has made 52.6 percent of his threes, the second-highest mark in the league during that span (with a minimum of 15 attempts).
“I just think it’s more of I guess trying to be more aggressive going to the basket,” Horford said. “With the 3-point shot, I’ve been working on it quite a bit. I feel confident about taking them when I’m open, taking them when they’re there, and just being a little more selective with the shots that I take.”
Horford said the recent dip in long-range attempts could also partly be attributed to his right elbow sprain that caused him to miss two games this month, as a 24-foot shot can be taxing on that joint.
But this season teams are more aware of Horford’s ability from beyond the arc, so defenders are charging to him more aggressively. Now, he is taking a few hard dribbles and making them pay for overplaying the three.
“People are closing out to him out there,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, “which is why you want to be able to shoot it, so that you can then make plays when you’re being closed out to.”
Over the past 13 games Horford is averaging 8.9 points in the paint, up from 5.9 prior. He is also converting a whopping 72.9 percent of his attempts that come from between 5 and 9 feet from the basket. Prior to this run, he was shooting just 34.9 percent in that range.
Horford said there were situations earlier in the year in which he rushed 3-pointers just because they seemed to be the appropriate shots. And that caused his success rate to suffer a bit.
“A lot of times I was put in the position to shoot them and I wasn’t necessarily ready to shoot them,” he said. “I think now every time I’m popping to the three, I’m comfortable and I’m in rhythm and I’m ready to go and knock them down. It starts with mind-set, and I think that’s helped me.”
Horford is averaging 15.5 points per game in March. Even though he has had more success while trimming his number of 3-point tries, Stevens said the decrease was not a directive from the coaching staff.
“Heck no,” Stevens said.
In fact, it is partly Horford’s ability to make 3-pointers that makes him so effective in so many other areas, because it affects how teams approach him.
“Obviously when you’re shooting well it helps, but just the threat of being able to shoot it is just as important,” Stevens said, “because then teams have to decide how they’re going to guard a pick-and-roll between him and Isaiah [Thomas]. They’re going to have to decide how much help they’re going to give on other people’s drives and all of those other things. It makes defenses make decisions and it allows people to get into the paint.”
Horford, who is now in his 10th pro season, knows as well as anyone that opponents will adjust to his adjustments. So his approach right now might not be his approach come May.
“I think the best thing we can do as a team and as players,” he said, “is always keeping the defense guessing.”