Al Horford is good. This is a sentence that’s never punctuated with an exclamation point between the months of October and March. Then, once again, you see him stopping the least stoppable players in the Eastern Conference, and making all the right decisions on the other side of the floor, and it’s tempting to add some extra mustard: Al Horford is ridiculously good!
It’s not so much that anyone forgets Al Horford is very good; that fact is always in my mind somewhere, just tucked away into some filing cabinet in some cobwebbed corner of the attic. Then come spring he’s infuriating Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo and knocking down 20-footers, slicing through any youthful MVP-candidate’s hype to make abundantly clear what a team needs from a modern big man to succeed in the playoffs. Horford had 20 points, 11 rebounds, and three assists in Boston’s Game 1 rout.
Most importantly, he held Antetokoumnpo to 7-for-21 shooting. While the Celtics had lots of strong bodies to throw at him, including a solid contribution from Marcus Morris, nobody can take more credit for that wretched shooting night than Horford. Every trip down the floor, he would dare Giannis to pull up, lurking in the lane with arms spread wide, only to shadow him step-for-step the moment the Buck made his attack.
Al was only officially credited with three blocks and one steal on the night, but his hands were everywhere: getting in Giannis’s airspace, disrupting his handle, recovering to plug any temporary holes in the defense before Giannis could burst through them. His quick feet and remarkable sense of timing turned out to be a capable match for Giannis’s apparently unmatchable speed, strength, and length.
Not many people in the league can gobble up Antetokounmpo like this with consistency. Teams will probably need one such player if they want to advance through the East anytime in the foreseeable future.
And if that player can add as much as Horford does on the other end, they’re really cooking. When he wasn’t locking up Giannis, his gravity was forcing the defense into tough decisions on the other end. Kyrie Irving, who organized the Celtics offense to perfection in this game, couldn’t have asked for a better dance partner than a big who has shot 41 percent from three in his postseason career. When the alternative is letting Kyrie scurry downhill to pick any shot of his choosing, many defenses are content to drop back and let Horford huck it. Milwaukee did, and paid for it.
Boston spammed the Irving-Horford pick-and-pop in this game with pretty sterling results. There were a lot of plays like these, and I won’t bore you with all of them. Just visualize Irving coming around a screen and making a neat little pocket pass to Horford, who placidly drains it after elevating four to five inches off the floor.
It’s only one game. Giannis was an insurmountable force all year, turned the Pistons to ash, and may well be the regular season MVP. But as of now, the burden is on him to prove that he’s the best player in this particular matchup in this particular series. That’s the surreal Al Horford postseason experience for you, all over again.