We're only two preseason games into the return of Al Horford, and he's already impacting the level of the Boston Celtics play on both sides of the ball. Against the Toronto Raptors, we got to see this year's iteration of the double-big lineup, and the results were a far cry from the space-killing version we saw last year with Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson.
At times, Horford's ability to hit the three-ball and Robert Williams' roll gravity gave the Raptors defense an almost unsolvable puzzle, which bodes well for the Celtics moving forward.
"I think that's what's going to make our team so dangerous. If we need to do that, and if not, we will do the typical four perimeter guys with one big guy. But with us, why I think it's going to work is we all take the challenge and can guard the perimeter when we need to, with him, I need to space the floor. It's what I have to do,” Horford detailed after a successful night of running the double-big lineup with Williams.
“With him, he's the type of big that can pass the ball a little bit. When he rolls to the basket, it puts a lot of pressure on the rim, and it opens stuff up on the perimeter. That's why I feel comfortable that if we need to go to that lineup, it will work."
As Horford noted, he and Williams are talented passers, which adds another dimension of pressure for the defense. Not only do defenses need to guard all three levels against the duo, but they also need to edge out passing lanes.
Horford thrived in the Celtics five-out offensive scheme and continually made use of the space created by Williams roll gravity. Going 4-for-4 from deep, Horford displayed a shooting touch that will keep defenses honest whenever the Celtics choose to operate with Horford above the break.
"I think I am a much better shooter. When I was here last time, shooting it was something that was kind of new. My three-point shooting came in different ways than it comes now. I've really made sure that I work on shooting off the pass quickly. Not only off the pick-and-roll, movement shooting if I have to, I do feel that I am a much better shooter now than I was then. But that's the way the league has gone, so it's forced me to work on that more," Horford explained after his perfect night from three and 6-of-9 shooting night.
Horford's versatility on both ends of the floor has been a missing piece in recent seasons, with the Celtics often relying on a big-man committee to fill the role the veteran vacated after leaving for the Philadelphia 76ers. In the first two games since his return, Horford has shown his dynamic style of play is as timeless as ever, a fact not lost on new Celtics head coach Ime Udoka.
"Obviously, he can do some different things from our other bigs. He's just valuable whether he's starting at the four or sliding over to the five, just gives us a different look there. His shooting, playmaking, IQ, passing – all the things I've talked about since day one with him, all the things we knew he was going to bring. But we want to see him and Rob play together as well, and some of that means being on the perimeter more. If teams are downsizing, we want to find a matchup that's favorable for him as well, so he's showing us he can guard small-ball fours and guard fives as well. He's pretty much invaluable for us on both sides of the floor."
Invaluable. At the age of 35, Horford's impact has picked up right where it left off, understated both on and off the court. Just listening to Grant Williams discuss the veterans' impact on his own game should go some way to cementing the notion that a consummate professional presence is an undervalued aspect of roster development and team building. After having a solid game himself, Williams noted how his observations of Horford's application in training and learning from Horford's game tape are positively impacting his own game.
"Just learning from Al and the way that he cuts, but also just seeing the game a little bit better as time has gone on. Just feeling a little bit lighter on my feet, defending a little bit better and trying to improve every single day."
Grant Williams continued, "it's more just from observation when you're around a guy like Al. He just does a lot of things you see on film that not many people normally do. So just through watching him, how his approach is every single day, and how he moves in every single practice. He may not be the fastest in the world and may not be the most athletic right now, but he knows the game and sees it really well," Williams discussed after making several impactful plays himself during the Celtics win.
One of those moments came when Williams made an intelligently timed cut to kill a Raptors double-team on Jason Tatum, which allowed the All-Star to get a mid-range jumper.
Grant William's cut was right out of the Al Horford playbook and created the necessary space for Tatum to get his shot off. Following the game, Al Horford also spoke about Grant Williams learning from his approach to the game. "From what I've seen of him, he's kind of like a sponge, he's just picking things up, he's seeing things. And the other part of his game is to continue and find ways to cut and move to impact the game, and he did a good job of that. He had a couple of plays like that," Horford said.
Two games played, two victories, and the seeds of a movement-heavy offense are starting to grow roots. Heavily influenced by the five-out "0.5 philosophy,” the Celtics will be relying on quick decision-making and effective execution throughout the season. When you run such a quick decision brand of offense, along with a communication-based switching defense, having somebody as dependable as Al Horford steering the ship is a luxury few teams have. Even at this late juncture in his career, the veteran big man is already staking his claim for a starting spot on this year's Celtics roster.
"I want to be in a position to be playing when it matters most. But I do like to start. That's just the reality; it's the competitor in me trying to feel like I can contribute and be a great asset." Horford told CelticsBlog's Keith Smith after Saturday’s win against the Raptors.
It would seem that Horford's performances, leadership, and defensive impact all indicate he could be well on his way to starting Opening Night - and the majority of Celtics games this season.