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Like a glove: the Amir Johnson-Al Horford fit

Through three preseason games, the starters have been clicking on both sides of the ball in large part to the growing chemistry between Amir Johnson and Al Horford.

NBA: Preseason-Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Ruy Lopez. The Alekhine Defense. The Queen’s Gambit. These are some of chess’s most famous opening moves. The Xs and Os of basketball can seem like pieces on a chessboard, and it sounds like wunderkind Brad Stevens may have settled on his opening move, particularly the pairing of Amir Johnson and Al Horford:

"I think that, thus far, (Johnson and Horford's) skill sets fit each other nicely," Stevens said. "I think Al's had a contagious effect on our passing in that group. And I just think everybody is looking maybe one pass too many at times. But I'd rather dial it back then turn it up. Like I think that ultimately those guys are trying to share the ball to the point where, yesterday, I thought they passed up a few really really good shots. But I think that both of those guys being able to play in the seams, both those guys being able to catch it off pick-and-rolls and quickly move it to others has really had a great impact on the whole group."

The Johnson-Horford Seam has a ring to it, right?

As’s Jay King points out, there’s still a chance that Kelly Olynyk could work his way into the starting lineup. KO will be re-examined in New York early next week, and if everything goes right, he could be cleared for contact with two weeks of training camp left to catch up. I had made my case for Olynyk playing a bulk of his minutes next to Horford, but I might be on Team Johnson now.

First, there’s the defensive edge. It’s a small sample size, but Amir is leading the team in defensive rating at 74.2. He’s locked up with Joel Embiid, Roy Hibbert, and Brook Lopez so far and held his own, but his job as a help defender will be alleviated by Horford’s presence. In Atlanta, Horford played center next to Paul Millsap and didn’t have to be as mobile guarding the low block. In Boston, he slides into a more versatile role defending 4s and switching out on ball handlers in the PnR. He has more lateral speed than Jared Sullinger to stay in front of face-up forwards, too. If Olynyk was starting, Horford would be relegated to stop gap on the back line, and KO would be eaten alive by the likes of Blake Griffin and, well, Millsap.

But it’s on offense where it makes the most sense. Horford is a very efficient scorer as a roll man, but last season, the Celtics rarely ran the PnR. They ranked in the 10th percentile of the entire league in pick-and-rolls and for Johnson, and rolling to the rim made up only 15.6% of his offensive opportunities.

For all intents and purposes, Amir was a garbage man. He rarely posted up in isolation (10.9%), with most of his looks coming off the glass (17.4%) or cutting to the rim (19.3%). Johnson only average 5.4 FGAs per game and 81.5% of them were in the restricted area. Johnson did all the dirty work, and with the addition of Horford, he’ll be doing more of the same.

Early in his career, Horford had a similar role to Johnson’s when he played with Josh Smith, but under Mike Budenholzer, he has slowly moved his game outside of the paint. Despite being Atlanta’s starting center, Al’s been adjusting to the modern NBA by developing a three-point shot and becoming more of a playmaker above the break.

Here’s a familiar action that the Celtics run on a dribble hand off. It’s Tyler Zeller instead of Johnson, but Horford’s role stays the same. While Zeller rolls to the rim, it’s Horford that pops behind the arc and hits the three.

So far with the Celtics, he’s proved to be an effective screener for Thomas and Bradley and a quick decision maker with the ball. Here are a few more clips from Boston’s first meeting with Charlotte.

The movement varies, but conceptually, it’s the same: Horford working above the break to free up ball hanlders and shooters and Johnson working the baseline and looking to cut for an easy basket. It’s a symbiotic relationship that’s quickly growing as training camp goes on. The Celtics will still play a lot of small ball this season, and Olynyk will eventually be folded into the rotation, but it looks like Brad Stevens has found a pairing that he likes.

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