BOSTON – Down three with 9.7 seconds left, David Joeger’s Kings inbounded the ball to their star. There was plenty of time to work the ball in search of a clean look at an equalizer.
Matt Barnes cut down to hide under the rim. The space was cleared for Cousins. Something must be in the works.
Then suddenly, with Horford smothering him 25 feet from the basket, Cousins ripped through to draw a foul. But Horford expertly stripped the ball, a shadow boxer catching a bullet in the air.
Avery Bradley collected the ball and waltzed to the rim. 7 players stared in disbelief. Al Horford stood proud after winning yet another game with his defensive wizardry. DeMarcus Cousins threw his hands in exasperation and looked aimlessly, searching for a ref who would say, “Lol, JK.”
From one side, it was a great confirmation that the Celtics’ defensive identity is returning and becoming a foundation again. But from the other side, it once again provoked the question of whether they can count on their star to win the game.
Cousins divulged post game that he disrupted the play call to try to draw the foul, something he admitted was a mistake. While Cousins took over the game in the final minutes, it was primarily Matt Barnes and Rudy Gay that had got them there.
Coach Joeger said that the Kings had multiple options on their final play, including what looked to be a floppy curl from Matt Barnes to the weak side elbow. But if that was to happen, the pindown from Collison never came. The ball never looked close to getting to a ball handler. The whole play looked doom from the start.
“In general [the Celtics] are a good team and everything, but we just shot ourselves in the foot,” Joeger said. “We take bad shots sometimes and it just ticks me off.”
Joeger wasn’t the only one a little peeved, as his teammates were visibly upset after they had fought to be in position to get to overtime. This is something that had been building over time, per a source. While the Kings recognize the organizational dysfunction that has gotten them into this position, they are reminded often that Cousins will often carry them and destroy them in the same game.
He tore Horford to pieces on the low block a couple minutes earlier. He hit a three off a dribble hand off with 38.5 second left to make it a one possession game. His passes out of the post late in the fourth make you think he has sonar. He is a one man wrecking crew and clearly deserving of the claim that he is the best post player in the game.
“He’s a dog down there. He’s a bull,” Jae Crowder said. Crowder said he has become friends with Cousins from their interactions on the court, showing he has a tremendous respect for Cousins’ tenacity and intensity.
But when juxtaposed to Al Horford, it’s clear that Horford’s consistency, technique and reliability are what affects winning more than anything else.
“The one thing about Al is he’s always in a stance,” coach Brad Stevens said. “His arms are always long. He takes up a lot of space and then he reacts quickly to what’s going on.”
Horford somehow always has his arms out and spread, every second of every game. It is most valuable when he is covering the pick-and-roll, as he prevents teams from slipping passes through the middle and allows him to contests threes more easily. It was vital to forcing multiple misses in the second half.
Horford’s six blocks were the most in a game for the Celtics since the infamous Vitor Faverani did it in November 2013, per BBall Reference. He was vital contesting threes, as the Celtics had nine less possessions Friday according to Synergy, yet still won by forcing 20 missed threes.
While Cousins was the offensive force for spurts in crunch time, Horford controlled the entire second half with his defense. Even when he would get beat by Cousins in the post, he would come back the next play and snuff out a few ball actions. When players score on Horford, they have to fit tough shots. He stands his ground, keeps his hands up and dares you to come at him.
It’s why he is now leading the league in blocks per game with 2.9, although he doesn’t officially qualify yet. He’ll qualify soon, as he is back to full form and the Celtics’ defense is on its way too.
Horford narrowed out a victory in this battle of two very different dominant centers. His game compliments his team perfectly and he always finds a way to get things done on the aggregate. The next question will be if it is enough to truly compete for the title.
Regardless if Cousins ever ends up coming the Celtics’ way, Horford showed Friday why they can look to him to get it done.