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A big quiet night for Al Horford

Horford had a big impact in a low-scoring night.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Recently, I’ve been trying to watch games without listening to the broadcast. I like the idea of formulating my own opinions about what I'm seeing without a potential influence from the announcing team. Instead, I put on a playlist, kick back with my notebook, and jam out while absorbing the game.

I’m not one to watch the box score, either. In fact, I get so consumed by following the off-ball action that I often lose track of the score and end up watching possessions twice, one for off-ball and one for on-ball. It takes longer to get through a game, but to me, I’ve watched the game the way that I enjoy, and that’s what matters, right?

What I like most about this method is sometimes, I will be midway through a game and have an opinion that can be totally off-kilter from what the box score is saying. Take Al Horford’s performance from Game 2 against the Philadelphia 76ers as an example. Clearly, he’s struggling when shooting the ball, yet as I watched his performance in the Boston Celtics May 3 victory, I felt like he was having a monster night.

Horford was making an impact outside of his points tally. With fingerprints all over the place with hustle plays, solid defense, screen creation, and spacing, It was hard for me to compartmentalize that to some, this was a poor performance from the veteran big man.

When looking for defensive impact, I often attempt to monitor how a team defends the passing lanes. After all, if you make it tough to move the rock, you force tightly contested shots. It’s all part of the chess match. That’s why the above defensive play from Horford made it into my game notes, not only because he’s a 36-year-old chasing down a fast break; there was also the way he read the pass, played the lane, and ultimately got the deflection.

I like deflections almost as much as I like steals — there’s a similar impact on your opponent's offense when you deflect a pass and force a reset from the sidelines with a diminished shot clock. You’ve taken the offensive out of its rhythm and provided your team with the necessary time to regain their defensive structure and composure.

According to NBA Stats, Horford led the game in deflections, getting his hand in the passing lane on four occasions, with only Malcolm Brogdon coming close with three deflections himself. We’ve often said that Horford helps set the tone for the Celtics, and it would appear that he did so again against the Sixers, as the Celtics as a unit registered 16 deflections compared to the Sixers' 8.

Beyond playing the passing lanes, Horford was also playing his role on defense to perfection as the Celtics looked to adjust their pick-up points, ball pressure, and weakside rotations following their Game 1 mauling in screening actions. However, the above play, in particular, is one that I thought accentuated the impact Horford was having on proceedings throughout the contest.

Sure, Horford is kind of disrespecting PJ Tucker by playing so far off him, yet his timing of when to rotate over from the weakside, jump, and get his hand onto James Harden’s floater, was impeccable. When Horford is playing at that level, Boston’s defense is better for it, as his positioning, versatility, and ability to dictate his teammate's positioning are all aspects of his game that the stats sheet can’t quantify.

Horford’s impact wasn’t confined to the defensive end and didn’t exclusively exist within the margins.

This season, only 17% of Horford’s offense has come around the rim, with a further 16% coming in the mid-range, meaning 67% of Horford’s shot selection is perimeter based. As such, when operating as the screener in pick-and-roll actions, Horford is either going to pop or look to offer some secondary creation in the short-roll, which is what we see in the above possession.

The Celtics go to an empty corner pick-and-roll between Jayson Tatum and Horford. As the Sixers send two toward Tatum, Horford initiates the short-roll before finding Jaylen Brown on a 45-cut. You see, Horford isn’t seen as a roll threat, and as such, the urgency to rotate over and tag the roll is minimal, especially in an empty-corner set where the defense has to come from the weak side.

However, Horford is among the best passing bigs in the league, so it makes sense that Joe Mazzulla would task his team with utilizing that skillset when the opportunity presented itself.

Unfortunately, the overarching memory from the game will be that Horford went 1-of-8 from deep and 2-of-10 from the field. Yet, it’s important to remember that this is the same player that finished top-3 in the league for a three-point conversion rate throughout the regular season and that if the Sixers are going to keep daring him to shoot, he has to let it fly.

Toward the end of the series against the Atlanta Hawks, we saw Derrick White stuttering through a scoring slump, only to see him snap out of his slumber in Game 2 against the Sixers. There’s no reason to believe that Horford won’t rediscover his range and touch in the coming games, especially when you consider the amount of space the Sixers are affording him on his attempts.

Horford afforded space on the perimeter.
Horford afforded space on the perimeter.

The above clip is taken from a zoom action where Horford has popped into the corner after setting wide-pin down for Jaylen Brown, thus generating a wide-open shooting opportunity in the corner.

Furthermore, even when his shot isn’t falling, Horford’s presence affords the Celtics the spacing their offensive system is reliant upon, giving Joe Mazzulla a genuine five-out offensive rotation that can carve open driving lanes and solid shot opportunities from anywhere on the court.

So, as I wrapped up my watch of the Celtics' victory over the Sixers, I came away with the belief that Horford had been an important member of the rotation, despite the lack of scoring. Because, Horford, as he’s always been, is a connective tissue to everything the Celtics do well, and his presence within the rotation holds value beyond simply scoring or assisting. However, I do hope he can start knocking down his open looks sooner rather than later, so the Celtics can wrap this series up quickly and return to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they will be looking to defend their crown as the best team in the East.

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