For large chunks of the season, many Boston Celtics fan’s thoughts on Al Horford ranged from “I hope he can turn it around and have an impact.” all the way to “What a waste of money!” Those who were a little more familiar with Horford stressed patience and urged everyone to look beyond the simple box score numbers to understand his impact.
If you expected Horford to grab 10+ rebounds per game, block a ton of shots and score 20 points per game that is on you for not properly acquainting yourself with the player the Celtics acquired. And just because Boston gave him a max deal, doesn’t mean his production levels were going to make a leap. Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens knew what they were getting and paid accordingly to get it.
As the season has gone along, Horford’s true impact has been easier to see. His all-around brilliance on offense has shown up traditional numbers like points and assists, but also with his terrific screens and ball movement in general.
However, for as good as Horford has been on offense, he’s been just as good, if not better, on defense. Again, it doesn’t always show up in flashy ways, but his being a solid anchor on the back line sets everything for Boston. In Game 1 versus the Wizards, his impact was on full display.
Early on in the game, everything was a bit of a mess for Boston. Here are a few early clips, as the Celtics struggled out of the gate:
Amir Johnson doesn’t contain John Wall on the pick and roll with Marcin Gortat. Because of this Marcus Smart gets caught looking to see if he should give help and gets beat back door by Otto Porter.
Kelly Olynyk gets caught in no-man’s land. He doesn’t hedge hard enough on Wall to make it difficult on him and then recovers slowly to Gortat, leading to an easy dunk.
Washington ran Otto Porter off a lot of screens throughout the game. On this play, watch as Porter comes off the screen for the easy jumper in the paint. Neither Johnson nor Olynyk takes that cut away, creating an easy look for Porter.
When Horford was in, it was a different story:
This play results in Beal hitting a jumper, but watch Horford take away the initial action. He drops to take away Porter’s cut in the paint. That was Washington’s first look. Sure, Beal hits a contested 20 footer, but that is a shot Boston will live with versus an easy paint touch for Porter.
The clip starts late, but Horford uses his quick feet and good balance to keep Wall in front of him, creating a turnover.
This one shows Horford’s ability to defend two players at once. Gortat sets a half-screen, which Horford recognizes early. He slides towards the corner to keep Wall from going baseline, where he would have dished back to the rolling Gortat. Horford also keeps body contact to Gortat, which junks up the whole play for Washington. Wall ends up forced back middle where the Celtics have players waiting and it results in a turnover.
This play shows a good awareness of time and situation. He lets Gortat go, knowing he’s not a threat around the arc and instantly recognizes that Porter is attempting to back cut Jae Crowder and takes him away. It also shows good faith and trust in Marcus Smart’s ability to defend Wall one-on-one without having to over help. Had Horford over-helped to keep Wall from the lane, Porter would have gotten an easy layup.
The last two clips show solid, straight up, man-to-man defense. Gortat had hurt the Celtics early with several baskets inside. These two plays were his last two field goal attempts of the afternoon, as Horford’s defense essentially played him off the floor and out of the game. A lefty hook and a fade away jumper are shots Boston will live with on every trip. In addition, because Horford can handle him straight up without help, everyone else stays home on their man, making it harder on Washington to get an open look.
If the Celtics are to continue their playoff run, they need this type of defensive performance on a nightly basis from Al Horford. Everyone knows Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley can cause havoc on the perimeter and that Jae Crowder can bring it as well, but Horford is the key to the back line of Boston’s defense. The Celtics might not have a monster shot blocker, but they don’t need one when they can force tough shots by taking away easy looks. And that all starts with Horford protecting the paint in ways we don’t always think of.