The man who was seen as the key to Boston’s defense just a year ago was the same man the Celtics continually looked to expose against the 76ers. Al Horford was a point of emphasis in the Celtics offensive game plan, continually forcing him to guard the likes of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Unable to keep up in a foot race or guard those guys on the perimeter, he became a liability which the Celtics took full advantage of repeatedly.
There were times when Brown or Tatum would be faced with solid defense from Al, but would still find a way to score. That solid defense however fleeting it may of been, was still a reminder of what Horford is capable of. Unfortunately, he is better suited to guarding bigs than young wings like Brown and Tatum who are having career years.
One of the first things to regress as you age is speed. It happens to us all. Horford was exposed on the break countless times as the Celtics looked to push the tempo in order to counteract the size discrepancy of their gigantic counterparts. That tempo is a key factor in why attacking Horford made so much sense.
Joel Embiid is still a young player in the league with otherworldly lateral quickness. Attempting to beat him on the break is begging to be blocked. It made sense to attack their older, slower big man, putting him in pick-and-rolls or blowing by him the moment he shows on pick-and-roll defense. If you have him guarding you in the corner then a quick jab step can produce the necessary room to get a shot off or allow you to drop your shoulder and drive right past him.
They could either draw him into the lane or drive directly at him, confident in the knowledge they wouldn’t be met with much resistance from him once they got into scoring position. Their success when attacking him bodes well moving forward. They now have an option should the teams meet in the playoffs.
The Celtics showed that their lack of size can be used to their advantage in this game. Their speed and passing ability carved open the Sixers repeatedly. Unfortunately for Big Al, he was the their primary line of defense against some of the best young talent in the league. Horford is at his best when guarding guys who play with their back to the basket or when he is closing out on shooters that don’t pose a threat with the drive. This Boston team is always a threat to run their man off the line, and do so with devastating effect that usually ends up on a highlight reel across social media.
While this was only one game against a team that still won the season series 3-1, it provided an insight into how to attack this team of giants. That insight revolved around punishing Horford’s aging legs and running the team off the court, mixed with sharp passing and delightful dribble-drive moves to open space in the lanes.