When the Celtics re-acquired Al Horford two summers ago, the landscape of the Eastern Conference was clear: Boston would have to get through Giannis Antetokounmpo and/or Joel Embiid to win a championship.
So far, the cagey veteran has gotten the best of both of them.
In this year’s marquee matchup with the MVP, Horford didn’t have that signature moment like when Antetokounmpo dunked and flexed on the 36-year-old in Game 4 last year only to get the favor returned with a facial of his own as part of a 30-point fountain of youth.
No, against Joel Embiid, the feat was more Sisyphean, a grueling game-to-game task of slowing down one of the best big men in the game. Game 7 on Sunday afternoon belonged to Jayson Tatum and his 51 points that buried the 76ers under a 112-88 blowout, but if there a defensive highlight reel for the clincher, it belonged to Horford.
Horford had missed all nine of his three-pointers in Games 5 and 6, but he hit two in Game 7 that we’re much needed momentum shifters: a three to stem the tide at the end of the first quarter when the Sixers were surging and another later in the second that gave Boston’s it’s first lead 38-37 after falling behind in the first half. However, it was his defensive work after halftime that really help put Boston over the top.
In our CelticsBlog Slack channel, I asked the other writers, “can you be hot on defense?” It sure felt like it. While Tatum torched Philly’s defense from beyond the arc, Horford’s hardhat work in the trenches against Embiid was equally demoralizing.
Per NBC Boston’s Chris Forsberg, over the final six quarters of the second round series, Horford was the primary defender on Embiid for over half of Philadelphia’s possessions. He held him to 38.8% shooting (31-of-80) with eight blocked shots. In Game 7, Embiid was just 5-of-18 from the floor with just six free throw attempts. By the end of the series, it seemed like Horford had process The Process.
“Just trying to make everything as difficult as I could. He’s the MVP of the league for a reason with how much pressure he can put on your defense with so many things that he can do,” Horford said after blocking Embiid three times.
“I was just out there trying to fight for my life and trying to make an impact and I understood in this series, it wasn’t going to be so much my offense. It was more defensively that I had to take that challenge and defend him for us to have a chance.”
He credited his teammates and the coaching staff for mixing up their coverages and helping when he needed help, but ultimately, Horford deserves all the credit for (again) shutting down a Most Valuable Player when it mattered most.