The box score for Al Horford’s return to the Boston Celtics lineup after a one-game absence doesn’t look particularly special. The big man (who turns 36 in a few short weeks) scored 10 points (4-of-4 shooting), grabbed three boards, dished three assists and snagged a steal and a block.
But, as is often the case with Horford, the numbers don’t really tell the full story. His presence in the Boston lineup had as much to do with Thursday night’s convincing 127-102 Game 2 win as anybody on the roster.
You may recall that Horford wasn’t a Celtic at the time of these two teams’ meeting in the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals. He had, in fact, just lost to that Celtics team two rounds earlier, a sweep that brought an end to his awkward and turbulent time with the Philadelphia 76ers and eventually lead to his half-season sabbatical in Oklahoma City.
In fact, in the bubble against Miami, the Celtics practically didn’t even play a frontcourt. Jayson Tatum was entrenched as the starting four, heading up a frontcourt rotation that included just Daniel Theis, rookie Grant Williams, second-year Robert Williams (who averaged just 11 minutes per game in the postseason) and Enes Freedom. In their season-ending Game 6 loss, that foursome combined to play just over 40 minutes total. Miami’s Bam Adebayo, not coincidentally, went ballistic on the uber-small Boston roster, piling on the highest-scoring game of his playoff career: 32 points and 14 rebounds, including 11 attempts at the free throw line.
Fast forward two years, and the Celtics have tied up this series with a roster that looks both familiar and completely different at the same time. Three of those four bigs from 2020 are still here, but Theis is merely a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option, while the two Williams have matured into high-level rotation pieces after scarcely even seeing the court two seasons ago.
But anchoring it all is the elder statesmen Horford. We’ve written at length about Horford and his importance to this Celtics team, and thus far this postseason, he’s lived up to his billing at every stop. Losing him in Game 1 was a brutal absence both for his importance to the roster, as well as the sheer surprise factor of his late scratch from the starting lineup after entering the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols.
“We wasn’t prepared to be without Al,” said Jaylen Brown after the Game 1 loss. “We definitely wasn’t prepared to be without Al and [Marcus] Smart. But that’s not an excuse. We have to be better.”
The rest of the roster does indeed have to be better than they were in Game 1, but having Horford (and Smart, of course) back on the court certainly helps.
As he did against Milwaukee, Horford just makes everything more difficult for the Heat. He mucks up the zone defense that flummoxed the Celtics in 2020 with his ability to operate at the nail. Adebayo can’t wreak havoc like he did against the 2020 squad’s undersized front line, because Horford has the size and strength to push back. Miami also can’t afford to cheat off of him like they could Theis, because he’s on another level as a shooter and passer (and has shot 45% from behind the three-point arc so far this postseason).
With Smart also returning to the Celtics lineup in Game 2 (and coming one rebound short of a triple double while scoring 24 points, for that matter), much of the postgame conversation revolved around the duo’s importance to this Boston lineup.
“Great to have the vets back, obviously. Calming presence there,” said head coach Ime Udoka, in a perhaps-unintentional bookend to his more frustrated comments after the Celtics’ Game 1 loss, in which he said: “Having Marcus and Al might have helped, because they settle us down.”
Settle the Celtics down, the duo certainly did. Far from his dominant form of the 2020 ECF (or even his defensive excellence in Game 1 on Tuesday), Adebayo scored just six points on anonymous 3-of-6 shooting. Jimmy Butler, who had a brilliant 41-point outing in Game 1, scored 29 on the evening, but wasn’t able to will himself to the free throw line nearly as effectively (8 free throws in Game 2, down from 18 in Game 1) and finished -20 for the game, third-worst on the Heat.
At the end of the night, Horford gave his thoughts on having to watch Game 1 apart from the rest of the team — or at least, the family-friendly version of those thoughts. “Oh man... that was hard,” he laughed. “It was hard.”
Well, he’s back. And as we all have come to expect, his presence mattered for the Boston Celtics on Thursday night. They’ve taken a game off Miami on the road in dominant fashion, and now they’ll return to their home court looking to prove to the Heat that this series isn’t going to play out like it did in Disney World. If they succeed, it’s all but a certainty that Al Horford will be a pivotal reason why.