For stretches during Boston’s loss to the Rockets, the Celtics’ front court looked entirely comprised of Al Horford. The hefty wrap around his left knee seemed to support Horford and his balky knee and maybe, the future of this team.
The complexion of the Celtics’ roster creates an awkward dichotomy where Horford may not be the most important player on the team, but he’s the loss they would be least prepared to sustain. His seven-game absence with Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome provided a glimpse into a scary, hypothetical reality should Boston lose him to injury or free agency and his return provided evidence of the crucial nature of his role in the C’s success.
Case in point, Brad Stevens attempted to solve the riddle of center depth by eliminating it from the court entirely in his starting lineup against the Bucks last Friday. He included four wings and Kyrie Irving. The result: one of Boston’s worst showings of the season.
Excluding the outlier of a 56-point win over the Bulls, Daniel Theis posted a -5 and Robert Williams a -21 in the Horford-less games in which the opponent didn’t decide to stop playing basketball. Aron Baynes is out indefinitely with a broken hand.
Boston’s situation relieves little stress off Horford, already playing the second favorite of his two positions at age 32. A loss to Houston — with Baynes and Williams both unavailable — further revealed the gap between Horford and the Celtics’ depth behind him as he posted a +10 on a minutes restriction, while Houston targeted Theis to a -27.
Theis only took the floor for 18 minutes, but they laid a devastating toll. The Rockets’ guards attacked him on drives to move the ball back outside, or mixed him up in the pick-and-roll on numerous occasions.
Given their abundance of wings, if the C’s are almost better off missing somebody at that position every night, the same cannot be said for center.
Prior to injury, Horford set a career high with a +3.4 defensive box plus minus in 22 games. His rebounding and assist numbers approached his ones from last year and he matched his 12 points per game from 2017-18.
The eye test further lends credit to his impact. He cut and scored off Marcus Morris’ passes and set him up for a pair of threes in the two-man game to slash a 14-point deficit to one between the second and third quarter against Houston.
Despite a 2-for-10 shooting effort on Christmas, he led the effort to shut down Joel Embiid to two points and zero field goals in the final four minutes of 4th quarter and overtime. He also set the screen to free Kyrie Irving for his fifth three pointer before Jimmy Butler could leap in to defend. Embiid sat behind in the high post.
A hand-off play shook Ben Simmons and Embiid off of Tatum for a three midway through the fourth, following a pair of drive-and-kicks to Marcus Smart and Morris in the third. He also held Embiid’s attention inside and out while Irving hit three crucial shots inside to close the fourth, setting the stage for later fatigue.
Horford tied a career high with five threes as a central piece to Boston’s comeback from a 17-point halftime deficit against the Grizzlies. With 3:07 remaining in the fourth, he broke off on a nine-point run starting with a series of jab steps and fakes to beat Jaren Jackson Jr. for a three-point play.
He helped fill the lane on a strip of Mike Conley, leading to Gordon Hayward’s put-back while chasing Irving’s run in transition. Finally, he drilled a three after Hayward grabbed his own miss that Horford initially set up, then followed with another three.
Horford’s +8 offset a -5 night for Theis. A sensational run by Guerschon Yabusele on the defensive end shut out Memphis for nearly five minutes and generated a +11 night for him to provide Horford relief at 23 minutes. The Celtics did pick up Yabusele’s team option for the 2019-20 season, though Saturday became one of the few indications he can consistently compete in the league for long stretches.
Overall, the long-term proposition for the Celts at the center position falls into question beyond Horford. Baynes is 32-years-old and has a $5.4M player option this summer, already having signed two team-friendly deals with the Celts. Theis will become a restricted free agent. Marcus Morris — regularly flanking Horford at power forward — hits unrestricted free agency following what will likely be his career season.
Horford himself owns a $30.1M player option that would be hard to imagine him turning down, but even accepting leaves longer-term questions for the C’s at the position beyond 2020. Williams’ potential and a boatload of draft capital in the 2019 draft helps the Celtics address some of these concerns, but doesn’t eliminate the current fragility of depth at the position with Horford in the fold.
His level of play stands so far ahead of his teammates at the position and most realistic replacement players, that only the dream of Anthony Davis in a Celtics uniform should elicit any anticipation for Horford’s exit.
Boston’s contention ability hinges on his health this season and in the foreseeable future.