And... we're back! Apologies for the two-day delay — blame a certain other sporting event of note from this past weekend, among other things — but we are finally here with the CelticsBlog Player of the Week for the week of February 7 through 13. Better late than never!
We have three games to consider from last week, all of which were wins as the Celtics ran their ongoing win streak up to eight games. First, they smoked a heavily short-handed Nets team on Tuesday, before downing the playoff hopeful Denver Nuggets and Atlanta Hawks on Friday and Sunday with trade deadline newcomer Derrick White in tow.
As usual, let’s discuss our criteria. “Player of the Week” does not necessarily translate to “Best Player of the Week.” The idea of this award is to highlight difference-makers from the past week’s games, and to be honest, a strict focus on “best” would lead to this award pinballing back and forth between Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They’re the team’s star players, and the most important and impactful players on the court even on their worst shooting nights.
Repeatedly writing about those two, while deserved, would be just a little bit less fun. For that reason, we’re going to broaden our standards a little bit to introduce a little more diversity in the results. The two are eligible for the award, of course, but the bar for them is just a little bit higher.
Ask yourself: who was The Guy last week? That’s the kind of loose criteria we’re applying here.
CelticsBlog Player of the Week #3: Al Horford
3 GP, 47% FG%, 36% 3PT, 8 RPG, 3.3 APG, 2 BPG, +46
There was a very interesting pool of performances to choose from this week, as the team collectively played very well but no one player seemed to stand too far above another. Robert Williams nearly became our first repeat winner after his dominant performance against Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets on Friday night, and Jayson Tatum made a case for himself as well with a 38-point eruption against the Hawks on Sunday. Plus, there’s Derrick White, who came over from San Antonio and immediately fit in comfortably on this Celtics roster.
In the end, though, I settled on Horford, who had a rock-solid week from a role player’s perspective. It’s our second consecutive week without much in the way of exciting counting stats, but in the absence of a clear stand-out performer, it seemed a good opportunity to highlight one of the team’s more under-the-radar contributors.
And Horford certainly has existed under the radar. After a sprightly start to the season in his Boston reunion, the veteran has returned to Earth a fair bit. He's never been a player who really wowed you in a traditional sense, whether in terms of stats or highlights. But between his offensive decline and the spectacular emergence of Robert Williams III, some of the luster of his return has worn off. As a result, this week felt like a prime opportunity to highlight his contributions in his new, more modest role.
We began the week’s games with an absolute obliteration of the Brooklyn Nets, who were absent Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the since-traded James Harden, among others. The Celtics opened the game with a monstrous 28-2 run, and though the Nets would stabilize themselves somewhat from there, the contest was never remotely in doubt. For Horford’s part, the big lead made it a somewhat brief outing (22 mins), but he chipped in a little bit of everything, with eight points, five rebounds, seven assists, a steal and two blocks.
Boston’s offense hasn’t exactly scorched the nets (pun only sort of intended) during their winning streak, but they have shown an increased commitment to moving the ball that has paid dividends. Horford has contributed in that regard. He may not be quite as prolific a passer as he was in his previous stint in Boston — his 17.4% assist rate is by far the lowest of his four seasons with the Celtics — but he’s nonetheless a canny and willing passer that can help grease the wheels of the offense. Four of his seven assists came in the first quarter as the Celtics established their dominant lead.
Next up was one of the most exciting games of the Celtics’ season thus far: their 108-102 win over the Nuggets. Defense is the story with this performance; specifically, defense on the reigning MVP, Nikola Jokic. Denver has struggled through a plethora of injuries this season, but have remained Western Conference playoff contenders and one of the league’s best offenses thanks to the Serbian center at the heart of their lineup.
Jokic is the kind of player that you can only do so much to slow down. On the evening, he picked apart the Celtics’ elite defense en route to a 23-16-11 triple double, after all. But the Celtics certainly made him work for it. He coughed up a season-high nine turnovers and shot just 3-of-10 from three-point range. It’s a credit to the collective effort of the defense (and particularly that of Robert Williams III) that they were able to stymy Jokic as much as they did. Horford played a worthy part in that, though, especially being tasked as he often was with closing out on Jokic behind the arc.
One quirk of Horford’s season: he’s continued to pile up blocks despite clearly losing a step athletically. He’s still an effective defender on the whole — especially when checking opposing bigs — but it’s created this odd spectacle where he looks like he’s getting absolutely cooked by his man, only to still come away with a block or solid contest through timing and positioning. Many of his blocks this season look this way; a little more whimsical than you might like, but with an end result that is nonetheless positive.
Finally, the Celtics closed out their week by riding a gargantuan third quarter to come back and topple the Atlanta Hawks. This isn’t necessarily the most noteworthy individual performance from Horford, but it's worth shouting out his 2-for-2 night from behind the arc. This has been Horford's worst season as a shooter since he started taking threes regularly, and it's nice to see games where he manages to cash in. This team doesn't need him to connect on a high volume of threes to help their spacing -- he just needs to hit shots when he's open.
You can say there’s a bit of personal bias at work here, because to be honest, I just really enjoy blocked jump shots. There’s something remarkable about the sheer length and athleticism required to pull it off. This is a league that employs many of the best vertical athletes in the world, and blocking jumpers is a feat the vast majority of them simply cannot pull off. It’s why Robert Williams is such an absolutely delightful athletic freak. I can’t get enough of these plays.
With that in mind, it shouldn’t be shocking to say that 35-year-old Al Horford finding just enough bounce to deny Denver sharpshooter Bryn Forbes an otherwise wide-open three in the fourth quarter of the Nuggets game was an absolute delight for me.
This is a nice little play from Denver, running their deadly movement shooter around a strong Jeff Green ball screen and clearing him for a comfortable catch-and-shoot look. Yes, the Nuggets get a good bounce here and come away with a layup anyways, but this kind of play is Forbes’ bread-and-butter. Without Horford’s timely read, there’s a good chance this ties the ball game in an already tightly contested fourth quarter. Horford got barely more than a fingertip on that ball, most likely, but sometimes that’s all it takes.
On that note, it’s time to conclude our third Player of the Week article. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming for Player of the Week next Monday, but it stands to be a bit more brief of an affair than the first three have been. The Celtics have just two games this week before enjoying some well-deserved R&R over the All-Star Break: a back-to-back of last night’s demolition of the Philadelphia 76ers and tonight’s tilt against the young Detroit Pistons.
Who will be our next Player of the Week? Sound off in the comments with your thoughts (spoiler alert: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are off to strong early leads).