One of the most bizarre sports takes I can remember gaining traction is the idea that Al Horford has somehow been a disappointing player for the Celtics. As a player with a maximum contract, Al was always going to be sure to draw the ire of more casual fans because his box score stats do not jump at at you, and $27.7M is a big number.
It’s as American as apple pie to complain about how much money someone else is making, and discussing the accuracy of VORP, Adjusted +/-, and RPM were never going to be as fun as hollering about double-doubles. What’s more bizarre about him becoming the team lighting rod is that Al is the archetype of the steadying presence. He says the right things, never publicly complains and does everything short of exclaiming “Aw shucks” to paint the picture of the humble star.
That’s why there’s some ironic beauty in the Celtics drawing the Bucks in a first-round series. As the Celtics’ last standing All-Star, Horford was always going to be vindicated or vilified depending on the playoff results, and this Bucks series is one for which he will be front and center. Horford has liquefied the Bucks in their four-game season series this year.
He is shooting a white-hot 70.5% from the field against Bucks this season per NBA.com Stats, and the Celtics have outscored the Bucks by +33 with Al on the floor this season. (For some context, Jayson Tatum is second on the team with +12.) These numbers are in a small sample size and will almost certainly regress to the mean a bit in the playoffs, but there is also some encouraging consistency to exactly where Al Horford is getting his points.
That’s a lot of green on one shot chart, but that’s also a lot of shots in the restricted area. Most of that is stemming from the fact that the Bucks really don’t have the personnel to throw at Al to slow him down. In the Jason Kidd era, poor Thon Maker tried his best but had neither the strength to handle Horford in any sort of isolation nor the quickness to recover, and Horford took him to task.
When the Celtics are small, the Bucks have the requisite size to match up with Al, but they don’t have a big who is nimble enough to wall him off from the promised land, particularly when they have to close on him or if Al is beginning a drive from 18+ feet out. John Henson and Tyler Zeller are capable NBA players and solid big men, but there’s a reason the league is heading away from bigs who lack the lateral quickness to stay in front of drivers. Thon Maker can move his feet but is at Al’s mercy the second the post is an option. Hell, even Giannis had some issues containing Al in their most recent matchup.
Much has been made of the Bucks’ vaunted length and how they form a thicket of limbs that makes guard penetration and passing difficult. They’ve stocked up on versatile wing players, which is an overall good strategy given the pervasiveness of pick and roll and necessity of switching in today’s league. However, long limbs don’t do much when there’s a chainsaw that can go right through you. Horford is hardly the most dangerous post player in the NBA, but he’s plenty good enough to power through smaller guys like Tony Snell, Khris Middleton, or Sterling Brown.
The Bucks are not a big team, and while they have a glut of serviceable centers in Maker, Henson, and Zeller, they also lack much power outside of those plodding bigs. All of their other players are more “wing” than “swing,” and not having that strong, athletic guy can cause real problems against Horford. Someone like Thaddeus Young, Pascal Siakam, or Paul Millsap would make a world of difference for this squad, but it’s too late to think about that now.
The Bucks can handle big. The Bucks can handle skill. It’s when a player has both that the wheels start to come off for Milwaukee. Bucks coach Joe Prunty is going to have to make a decision at some point regarding what he’d like to do about Al. Going big with Henson or Zeller will cramp the shooting, and, if he’s feeling it, Horford could shoot those guys off the floor or make them look silly on closeouts. The answer will probably be, as it always is for Milwaukee, using Giannis to hold him in check.
However, the Greek Freak doesn’t exactly flourish as a post defender (as we saw above), and it’s a very dangerous game to have your superstar guarding a heftier post player for long stretches as foul trouble could come back to bite you. The x-factor in all of this is Jabari Parker, who may prove meaty enough to hold up against Al in the blocks and at least move his feet well enough to give the help time to get there.
It’s a tough situation for Milwaukee when Parker might be your best defensive option, but this is the playoffs, and guys have to step up and evolve. Postseason match ups in the NBA always come down to adjustments and chess matches. What works at the beginning of the series rarely works at the end. Unweaving the Bucks’ tapestry of appendages will not come easy, and there will be no simple solution for it. However, Al Horford’s presence gives Brad Stevens a tantalizing dangling string, and if I’m Brad, that’s where I start pulling.