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Al Horford provides the key mismatch against Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks simply have no answer for the Celtics’ All-Star center.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

After an inconsistent 2-2 start featuring a lot of hand-wringing on the offensive end, the Celtics entered tonight’s match-up with the undefeated Milwaukee Bucks with something to prove.

Well, they proved it. A franchise-record 24 three-pointers later, bolstered by 28 points and seven assists from Kyrie Irving, 10 points from surprise starter Semi Ojeleye and 30 assists as a team, and the Celtics are now sitting pretty at 6-2 with an early win over a hopeful Eastern Conference contender.

Even considering Kyrie’s typical greatness and Ojeyele’s standout fill-in as a temporary starter, the biggest factor in the Celtics’ win was their most significant mismatch against this Bucks roster: Al Horford, who torched the Milwaukee front court for 18 points and a season-high four made three-pointers.

Milwaukee’s defensive bigs remains their biggest hole. The past two seasons, they’ve relied predominantly on the duo of John Henson and Thon Maker to results that could be most generously described as “mixed.” Henson is more or less a perfectly average NBA center: a capable pick-and-roll threat and decent rim protector with some agility, but a player who won’t ever particularly scare you. Maker, on the other hand, has been completely terrible aside from a few brief flashes of brilliance in the last year’s playoffs. Horford, on the other hand, consistently gave the Bucks absolute fits.

Despite the Bucks’ myriad improvements this summer, this specific weakness hasn’t improved. From an offensive standpoint, Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova were savvy signings; they provide much-needed floor spacing around Giannis Antetokounmpo, and fit well in the motion offense that has been long since perfected by new head coach Mike Budenholzer. That formula has proven lethal for opposing defenses during the Bucks’ 7-1 start, as they’ve posted the sixth-best offensive rating in basketball.

Lopez and Ilyasova both still can’t play defense though. Lopez has been your stereotypical immobile, offense-first center for his entire career, and Ilyasova generally gets toasted by forwards with any amount of mobility. It hadn’t been actively hurting the Bucks — they’ve posted the second-best defensive rating in the NBA to this point — but it was an active detriment in their loss to the Celtics last night.

For starters, Horford simply had miles upon miles of daylight to shoot last night. His night opened with a pair of made three-pointers in the first five minutes of the game, and both were completely undefended due to mental lapses from the concrete-footed Lopez.

I understand that NBA defense is hard, but maybe, just maybe, you don’t want to give a guy who hit 43% of his threes last season this much space. In that first quarter, even his missed shots were exceptionally unguarded.

All three of these plays are on Lopez, first and foremost. He simply makes all the wrong decisions in pick-and-roll situations. He loses track of the play in each of these situations, usually by over-committing to the immediate threat of the drive, and once he’s horribly out of position, he doesn’t have the athleticism to compensate for the distance.

Unfortunately for the Bucks, it wasn’t just Lopez doing this. Even the more agile Henson found himself out of position in these situations — though it doesn’t help that the initial defender doesn’t switch onto Horford here either.

It’s not like the Bucks’ help defenders did any better off switches.

Before long, the threat of Horford’s jumpers opened up opportunities off the dribble, where his superlative passing can really shine. Watch how Ilyasova rushes out to contest a potential three, only to be completely burned by Horford on the drive, leading to a clean dunk for Semi Ojeleye.

Or how even more poor pick-and-roll defense leads to a wide-open corner three for Jayson Tatum.

Or when Lopez’s late contest (where even was he at the start of this play?) causes Eric Bledsoe to help on the threat of a Horford drive, leaving Irving free for an open shot.

The Celtics didn’t really employ many looks for Horford in the paint tonight, but rest assured, it’s a dynamic that the Bucks have historically struggled with -- and one the new-look Bucks still aren’t equipped to deal with. If Giannis himself is struggling to deal with these kinds of moves in the paint, the Lopez-Ilyasova duo isn’t going to do much better.

By the way, the Bucks’ most athletic front court players barely played last night. Henson played 10 minutes tonight and Maker was a DNP-CD.

The Milwaukee Bucks have looked like one of the most formidable contenders in the Eastern Conference in the early going this season. Giannis is a top-three candidate for Most Valuable Player and Budenholzer is one of the NBA’s brightest minds. They’re a team that should be seriously contending for an Eastern Conference Finals berth.

And yet, for the most part, the Celtics make them look foolish last night. It’s easily the best win they’ve earned in the eight games they’ve played this season. While this season will largely be recognized for the contributions of players like Irving, Hayward and Tatum, the Bucks game served as a valuable reminder that Al Horford is essential to this team’s success. If a second consecutive playoff matchup against Milwaukee lies in this team’s future, he might just be the deciding factor after all.

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