ATLANTA — The concern that Mike Budenholzer has with Al Horford isn’t whether the Hawks’ two-time All-Star center will try to do too much too fast in his first regular-season game in more 10 months.
"It’s getting him comfortable maybe even being aggressive and getting him where he’s finding his opportunities to score and then also when the opportunities to present to pass," Atlanta’s coach said Tuesday.
Horford hasn’t played in a meaningful game since Dec. 26 against the Cavaliers when he tore his right pectoral muscle and, not surprisingly, he’s been anxiously awaiting Wednesday’s season opener in Toronto.
"It’s exciting and it’s just exciting to be back on the team and be back playing a real, regular-season game," he said. "I can’t wait."
Horford looked strong in the preseason, scoring at least 10 points in each of the last three games with an increased workload that culminated with 27 minutes against the Spurs.
Without Horford the Hawks reached the playoffs for a seventh straight years — the longest such streak in the Eastern Conference — and pushed the Pacers to seven games before exiting in the first round.
Now, with his career averages of 14 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.1 blocks back in the fold, Atlanta returns a player that could be the catalyst to the franchise’s bid for its first division title since 1994.
But first and foremost, there’s the matter of how Horford and forward Paul Millsap, who came into his own after Horford’s injury, will jell.
Horford gushes over what he saw out of Millsap, a first-time All-Star a season ago. The eighty-year player was 27th in the league in PER (19.8) and 10th among forwards, as he averaged a career-high 17.9 points and 3.1 assists, along with 8.5 rebounds.
Millsap also flashed an underutilized part of his game, perimeter shooting. His 2.9 attempts and 1.0 hits per game were more than he tried on average in his seven seasons in Utah combined.
"I was just very impressed with how he just, throughout the season, kept elevating his game," Horford said. "Even in the playoffs, some of the things that he was doing, for a guy that plays his position, it’s ridiculous."
Horford says Millsap, who produced two 20-point games in his last four preseasons and scored 14 per overall, was being conservative early on. He expects to see his frontcourt mate supply some expected tricks when the games matter.
"I’m eager to see, because I know that he hasn’t brought stuff out this season," Horford said. "I feel like he’s got a lot more stuff to show and it’s exciting to see that."
When they co-existed last year, few forward-center combinations were better, as the Hawks joined the Mavericks as the only two teams in the league to have a player at each of his positions in the top 15 in PER. But that was just a 29-game sample, and as they prepare for a full season together, Horford has made it a point of emphasis to make sure they both produce at a high level.
"For me, it’s important to get used to Paul and get used to the things he’s doing, and we’ve been doing that, "he said. "We’ve been making progress and that’s what the regular season is for."
That’s an opportunity Horford has been waiting months for.