Playoff basketball is the time to stand up and be counted, to prove that your presence within an NBA rotation impacts a team's chances of success. In Game 3 of the Boston Celtics' second-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks, Al Horford stood up to be counted and, as a byproduct, found himself making his own slice of history.
Of course, the veteran big man has been impressive all year, as his high-level defense and selfless brand of offense have been instrumental in the Celtics' rise towards the top of the league. Horford is an essential component of Ime Udoka’s roster despite his growing age. His presence affords the team a certain confidence level that you seldom find outside of your star players, which has never been more evident.
With the Bucks opting to bully their way to success, the Celtics are facing a robust challenge, supercharged by the physical dominance of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Yet, Horford is weathering the storm and rising to the occasion at a level many thought he could no longer reach.
In fact, throughout Sunday’s game, Horford proved he could still get things done on both ends of the floor. Let’s take a closer look.
Horford struggled to find consistency with his perimeter shooting to begin the season, like many other players around the league and often went multiple games without showing his true value as a floor-spacing big.
However, Horford is hitting 50% of his threes on 18-for-36 shooting since the playoffs began, placing him in the hundredth percentile among active big men in the postseason. Interestingly, of those 36 perimeter shot attempts, 21 have come from the corner, where Horford has scored at a 41% clip, per Cleaning The Glass.
The Bucks are known for allowing teams to shoot a high volume from deep, as they aim to control the glass and protect the rim, but by having a floor-spacing big man who can consistently hit his perimeter shots, he’s been the ideal counter to such a defensive gameplan.
Horford is incredibly mobile, making it easy for him to set screens and then fade into shooting pockets around the perimeter, often while the defense is still dealing with the ball handler who utilized his initial screen. This allows the 35-year-old to lean into his pick-and-pop game and use his unique and understated offensive skill set.
Corner pick-and-pop allows Derrick White to manipulate the defense by bringing the ball towards the nail, with Horford getting set in the corner before a quick pass finds the big man wide open for an easy bucket. Milwaukee might be happy giving up those shots in a vacuum, but Horford is quickly making them rethink their defensive principles when it comes to sticking with him.
Horford’s three-point shooting was a much-needed boost to Boston’s offense in Game 3, as he went 4-of-7 from beyond the perimeter, making him the Celtics' best marksman on the night. Of course, that shouldn’t surprise us because the Florida product has a knack for coming up clutch in big moments, regardless of what his team needs from him.
Horford isn’t consigned to getting his offense from the perimeter and is currently shooting 53% from the mid-range - an area of the floor that is often there for taking during playoff basketball, especially against a team that plays such strict drop coverage on pick-and-roll defense.
Elbow jumpers, push shots, short-roll middies, Horford has a deep bag around the free-throw line that makes him a difficult cover when he’s roaming off-ball or slipping a screen.
A big man rarely has value as an off-ball cutter in the mid-range area. Sure, most centers are a threat when rolling or cutting into the restricted area, and team’s often utilize that threat to create passing lanes. Still, Horford is a problem when cutting in from the wings to offer a scoring outlet around the elbow.
The beauty of Horford’s diversified skillset is visible in how the defense has to react to him when he’s on ball and on the move. You can see Horford attack the close-out (which he’s sneakily good at doing), draw defensive attention in the mid-range, and then attack the rim.
The upside of having Horford attack close-outs like this is that his passing ability is also high-level, so you can trust him to punish teams that overhelp on his drives by consistently hitting the open man. And, of course, as an old-school big man, there’s never a concern when he opts to post his man up and look for his own offense.
Despite Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart making big strides in their ability to initiate an offense, neither of them was able to impact the game on Saturday afternoon, at least not at the required level.
But, as you would expect, Horford was on hand to step in and pick up some of the slack, finishing the game with five assists worth a total of 13 points, with three of his dimes being to perimeter shooters and the other two getting guys lanes to the rim.
To be fair, some of Horford’s assists in this game were simple “one pass away” looks, but his willingness to get the ball out of his hands, make the right read, and sacrifice for the team are what make him such an integral part of the offense.
More importantly, Horford has a way of coming up clutch during big moments. The fact that three of his assists came during the Celtics' fourth-quarter comeback is typical for a player who continually proves his value, despite his behemoth contract.
Rebounding & Rim Protection
This section is arguably the most important area of Horford’s Game 3 contributions, as he dominated the boards, pulling down 16 rebounds, with three of them being on the offensive glass. The matchups against Milwaukee aren’t doing the Celtics any favors, as both Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams are struggling to impact the game in any discernable fashion, so having Horford step up as a rebounder helped fill the void left by his teammates.
The upside of having Horford be the one to control the glass is his ability to “grab and go,” quickly turning a missed shot into a transition possession or his willingness to hit “pitch ahead” passes to players that are leaking out after the missed shot. You can see the veteran grab the rebound and kick it to Marcus Smart, who is already closing in on the half-court line, which allows Boston to flow into their offensive sets way before Milwaukee has begun setting their defense.
Beyond controlling the glass, Boston’s elder statesman was also a reliable defender on the perimeter and did a fantastic job when being switched onto shooters or shifty guards. Horford spent most of his time matched up with Giannis in the first two games of this series, and that didn’t change in Game 3, as he held the superstar forward for 33.3% shooting from the field, forcing two turnovers in the process.
Horford also spent considerable time guarding the Bucks’ other two bigs, Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis, limiting both of them to sub-par shooting nights. He was also valuable on the perimeter, forcing Jrue Holiday into 2-of-6 shooting and 1-of-4 from three.
Horford’s game isn’t reliant on athleticism, verticality, or quick-twitch muscles. Instead, he offers a physical, methodical, and well-rounded approach that lends itself to longevity at the highest level, and against Milwaukee on Saturday, we got a first-hand glimpse of what a well-rested Horford is capable of.
However, as many of us know, the downside to aging is that recovery times begin to creep up, and additional rest is needed to reach optimum performance levels. As such, it’s no coincidence that Horford’s best game of the season came off the back of a three-day rest period - something that is seldom afforded to NBA players.
Still, while the Celtics fell short at the final buzzer (Horford didn’t deserve to be the player to miss the final shot), the team would never have been in the mix during those final possessions if it wasn’t for their versatile big man’s performance throughout the game. And if he can reproduce that form again on Monday night for Game 4, the Celtics will have every chance of evening up the series before heading back to Boston later this week.