ATLANTA – In the best of times, Al Horford, at 6-foot-10, 250 pounds, is an under-sized center and more suited to playing power forward.
Now consider that when the two-time All-Star returned from nearly four months out with a torn pectoral muscle last May in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, Horford had to battle the behemoths in the post without having all of his strength back in his upper body.
Horford said when he reviewed the game films, he saw that he was doing the right things on defense in terms of his positioning, but he estimates that his effectiveness was only about 70 percent. Even now, he said that he must continue to build his strength back up and hopes he will get back to where he was before the injury by the start of the season on Nov. 2.
“Just some of the things I wanted to do – or play my game, which is more aggressive and more physical — I couldn’t do it because I was limited strength-wise,” Horford said. “And that was something I’ve been trying to deal with all summer is to try and get my strength back. I’m not 100 percent as far as my strength but I’m feeling pretty good right now.”
When Horford returned and played in Game 4 of the Hawks’ series with Boston on May 6, he nonetheless performed at a high level. Coach Larry Drew said he was concerned to some degree about Horford’s minutes and risk of re-injury and played Horford 20 minutes in that first game. Horford made 6-of-10 shots for 12 points and five rebounds with one assist.
Facing elimination, Drew proved less cautious and Horford played 41 minutes in Game 5, recording 19 points, 11 rebounds and 3 assists. In Game 6 in Atlanta, which ended the Hawks’ season, 83-80, Horford played 46 minutes and posted 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting with nine rebounds.
As good as Horford was, Drew didn’t his center’s timing was there.
“I don’t think he was his regular self,” Drew said. “There had to still be some concern lingering of the possibility of the arm being pulled back and reinjuring it. He spent such a long time and he had the surgery and started the rehab so that was a long process.
“I’m sure somewhere in the back of his mind there was some concern whether he would get hit, an arm goes back or falling on it or something of that nature. I’m not trying to speak for Al. It might have been more mental than it was physical.”
Certainly, any rehab process has a vital mental aspect. It’s a daily grind, often both tedious and painful, without the reward of playing. For Horford, just getting to the point where he could return was no small feat.
With the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the Hawks were constantly on the road and had few practices when they were at home. That at times left Horford to work out alone.
“All the training staff was gone with the team,” Horford said. “Obviously, they have to take care of the other guys so for me it was key for me to do my conditioning on my own. The cardio stuff and just little things like that I had to take care of like that. It was challenging, but we made it work. We figured out a way.”
Horford credited the patient approach of his rehab therapist. Horford said that as a player, the urge is to rush through the process.
“You want to get back on the court as fast as you can,” Horford said. “He just wanted to make sure I felt right, I felt comfortable and I appreciated that because it helped me get back sooner and helped me feel more confident on the court as a player.”
As he continues to build up his strength, Horford is now working with a new strength and conditioning coach, as the Hawks hired Jeff Watkinson in the offseason. For the previous two seasons, Watkinson owned his own business that helped the physical training, development and conditioning of NBA players. He also had previously worked at Indiana University and a number of other Division I schools.
Watkinson represents just one small part of new general manager Danny Ferry’s makeover of the organization. The others include new assistant coaches and almost an entirely new corps of players. At times, he has lent a hand in explaining Drew’s concepts to his new teammates. That has made Horford, in his sixth season, something of an elder statesman.
“I mean, I’ve always felt I’ve been one of the leaders of the team,” Horford said. “And this year it’s no different for me, I guess you can say. Josh (Smith), myself, Zaza find ourselves where we’re in a position where we are the older guys. The other guys talk about who’s playing, who’s doing what. We can definitely can relate to that, especially some of the veterans who came from other teams but yeah you can say that.”