In games three and four of the Boston Celtics' first-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks, there has been an underlying battle taking place. For all the talk of Boston targeting Trae Young on the defensive end, it would appear that he is also targeting someone when he’s on offense: Al Horford.
Over the last two games, the Hawks have looked to get Horford switched onto young on the perimeter, where the shifty guard can take advantage of the veteran's 36-year-old legs, putting him in the difficult situation of trying to stay in front of his man.
Take this possession from game three, for example. Horford is guarding Jalen Johnson in man coverage, while Marcus Smart is picking up Young. A quick step-up screen forced Smart and Horford to switch, thus placing Boston’s veteran big man onto Young, who then turns on the jets and leaves Horford in his dust.
You can’t blame Horford, though. Young has exceptionally good body control and can change pace in the blink of an eye — he would be a tough cover for anybody, let alone a big man who is in the latter years of his career. Nevertheless, Joe Mazzulla looked to counter Young’s hunting trip by pulling Horford away from the action on the perimeter and implementing a drop coverage instead.
The downside with drop coverage is that it often creates shooting pockets around the free-throw line, pockets which Young, a guard who has shot 292/646 from mid-range this season, is happy to exploit.
In game four, we saw a similar story between Young and Horford, as Mazzulla toyed with ways to limit the impact of targeting a versatile defensive center by forcing him into multiple changes of direction in quick succession.
Below, we have another example of looking to switch Horford onto Young, this time from game four, although Jayson Tatum’s weakside rotation pressures the shot release and forces a rough miss.
For the most part, whatever Mazzulla did have an effect, as on Sunday, Young only got two shot attempts when directly guarded by Horford, converting one of them. Yet, the space that was generated from playing such a deep drop was certainly open for business as the Hawks looked to take advantage.
Take this possession, for example, as the Hawks go hunting a Horford/Young mismatch early in the first quarter. With Horford in a deep drop, Marcus Smart fights over the Clint Capela screen and essentially funnels Young toward Horford, who is waiting around the rim. Derrick White is guarding Dejounte Murray on the strong side wing, thus limiting Young’s ability to escape dribble away from Smart, who is denying the middle of the court.
The result is a Young bailout, followed by a kick out to Murray. Ok, the possession still results in three points, but it didn’t come courtesy of attacking Horford and given how Quin Snyder went to that matchup so early, successfully limiting its impact was an encouraging outcome.
Throughout the regular season, we’ve seen the Celtics experiment with playing a ‘switch 1-through-4 with the 5 in drop,’ with encouraging results. So, to see Mazzulla lean into this defensive system when Horford’s presence on the perimeter is a proverbial welcome mat to screening actions makes total sense. Yet, when both Robert Williams and Horford were on the floor, and neither was stepping onto the perimeter, things got a little hazy.
With two bigs committed to the paint, there’s little resistance on the perimeter, allowing Young to change gears and get an uncontested runner off, ending in an easy two points. Yet, if memory serves, the Horford/Williams double-big line-up is best served when Williams can rotate over the weakside to contest shots rather than building a wall against a slight guard who doesn’t possess the strength or brute force to bully his way inside.
Of course, we did see some other defensive variations when Young went looking for Horford, like how Jaylen Brown rotated over to pick him up early in the fourth quarter, throwing Atlanta’s offensive plans out of sync, although Young did manage to get to the line.
Over the past two games, the subplot of the Young and Horford cat-and-mouse game has been an interesting one to follow. Despite Horford’s versatility on defense, you can’t escape the fact that age is not on his side, and sometimes, when faced with an elite guard on the perimeter, he’s going to give up some ground as he changes direction and contests in the rearview.
Yet, when placed in a reliable scheme and protected by the Celtics' elite perimeter and wing defenders, Horford is still one of the more reliable bigs in the conference, if not the league. The challenge is to continually evolve how you protect him on the perimeter while ensuring he can be a valuable drop defender — and that’s where the adjustments come in.
As we head into game five of the series, in a potential close-out game for the Celtics, where Dejounte Murray will be missing due to suspension, it will be fun to see how frequently Atlanta look to target Horford, especially now the offense will surely run through Young. What’s more interesting, though, is that Snyder pinpointed Horford as the target of their mismatch hunting, considering he's been a pillar of everything good that’s been happening for the Celtics over the past two years.
Still, the playoffs are all about adjustments, so let’s see what Snyder and Mazzulla have up their sleeves on Tuesday evening.