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Al Horford comes off bench in opener in first of many potential Celtics starting lineups

The Celtics say they’re all prepared to come off the bench but time will tell if Al Horford becomes the most consistent contributor in that role.

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

NEW YORK — Much anticipation, many debates and surprising reports on Boston’s starting lineup led to the simplest answer on Opening Night. The Celtics addressed center depth concerns, having six starting-caliber players and the need to scale back Al Horford’s minutes compared to the past two seasons by bringing the veteran big man off the bench in Wednesday’s Opening Night win.

The conversation about lineups and rotations will continue beyond the 108-104 victory over the Knicks though, with a lack of bench points undermining what flowed between an exemplarily and underwhelming Celtics effort in the opener. Horford looked comfortable again coming off the bench after doing so in the preseason, scoring eight points with seven rebounds, two assists and a pair of threes on two attempts.

Joe Mazzulla predicted an array of lineups throughout the season, but with Horford acclimating to that position and two star defensive guards making small-ball offense possible, it’s worth wondering if preseason conversations solidified a close-to-final decision on the Celtics’ rotation. Reports indicated Holiday could play off the bench, and he expressed a willingness to do so, while Horford sounded less enthused at Media Day.

“There were some individual (conversations),” Jrue Holiday told CelticsBlog/CLNS Media on Wednesday. “But us six went together and talked about it, and honestly, it’s about what we can do for the team, no matter who starts, no matter who finishes. We all want to win and we’re all on the same, so when it comes down to it, winning is our only option and the only thing we want to do.”

Derrick White said on practice Thursday that that meeting took place one week ago, and while nobody volunteered to come off the bench, Boston’s coaches deciding on Horford for Opening Night, and everyone bought in to doing so when necessary. White joked he voted for Jayson Tatum to come off the bench. Tatum tweeted he would do it once this season.

Horford, who didn’t answer a Media Day question directly on the subject, later clarified that the roster and opportunity the Celtics enter the season with changed his thinking on starting. He came off the bench in all but 14 career games prior to Wednesday. Boston’s uncertainty at center behind Horford and Kristaps Porziņģis makes staggering their minutes understandable, though Luke Kornet’s rotation presence often placed Horford at the four off the bench, something Mazzulla attributed alongside benching Horford to New York’s double-big bench lineups.

The lineup remained undecided until roughly the time of that meeting, per sources. It also tends to matter to some NBA players. They become used to the starting routine and what the distinction says about their value. Malcolm Brogdon accepted a sixth man role all season in 2022-23 and finished the year sharing how difficult the adjustment was. Horford had less of an issue in the preseason.

“I keep everything the same,” Horford said. “For me, it’s just a different perspective when I step onto the floor, with what needs to be done at the time. My routine, it stays the same. The type of team that we have, we have a lot of depth, we have a lot of talented players. One of our strengths is our versatility as a team, so there are going to be times we have to go a certain way.”

“There are other times we need to play big, play some, things like that, it’s just the way it is. I’m in a position right now that I feel like we all can impact the game in a positive way, and sometimes the best thing for our group, right now, is to play that way. There will be times we play big, but for me, I’m in a good position where I’m at.”

Horford brought energy and ball movement to the second unit, and Mazzulla credit his closeouts on defense to forcing one of the Knicks’ shot clock violations. He finished with 25 minutes played, a necessary scale down from the 30 minutes he’d often log over the past two years. Porziņģis appeared for more than 38, something that shouldn’t happen regularly. Second unit rotations with Porziņģis, Tatum and Holiday off the floor did not fare well, outscored by 10 points per 100 possession in five minutes led by Jaylen Brown and White.

Boston closed with the starting five, which won its minutes by 24.6 points per 100 possessions and dominated defensively (85.4 DefRtg), so it’s hard to imagine that group breaking up on Friday against Miami. Horford’s seven minutes in place of White led to a bump in offensive rating, a small sample, but one worth exploring at some point as Boston anticipates everyone needing to sacrifice at some point this year. Injuries and rest will solve the starter question on many nights. For now — it’ll remain a question going into every one.

“It’s the ultimate sacrifice,” Tatum said in New York. “Everyone knows how much I love and respect Al. A lot of guys say they’ll do anything to help the team win but Al is the epitome of that. We got six starters essentially, and everybody’s gonna have to sacrifice at some point ... depending on who we’re playing and matchups, but for Al to voice that he should come off the bench or whatever, he’s the ultimate team player. That’s why we all love and appreciate him and he’s gonna be a huge part of the success we have this year.”

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