Coming into this postseason, Al Horford’s playoff reputation never really stood out. He spent most of his career on a series of Hawks teams that were doomed to be steamrolled by LeBron James every spring. In the 17 times he met James in the playoffs, he only won one game, and that was on his 15th try. Horford has never been a spectacular player, and arguments about the unseen value he adds to a team do not fare well in the face of six playoff series wins in nine seasons in Atlanta and a complete inability to trouble the Eastern Conference hegemony of LeBron James.
But everyone in the Eastern Conference has lost to James, whose teams have been to every Finals since 2009-10, and Horford is a legitimate star even though, yeah, sure, he’s kind of boring. He’s showing that now while leading the Boston Celtics, dreadfully misshapen and injured team at the moment, through their playoff run. He anchored the Cetlics in their Game 1 victory over the Sixers last night, going for 26 points on 12 shots, along with seven boards and four assists.
A great deal of productive basketball things that the Cetlics do—things observers tend to chalk up to coaching wisdom passed down from Brad Stevens—can actually be attributed to Horford, who is one of the NBA’s craftiest screen setters. The hobbled Celtics are short on ball handlers and shot creators, and so they rely on the space Horford creates with his movement and screens to generate good shots. His newfound three-point aptitude makes him an even deadlier screener. Watch how far away he got from Joel Embiid on the simplest of pick-and-rolls.
Because of Horford’s complete game, Embiid is left with two bad choices whenever he’s tossed into a screen action with Horford: stay with his man and leave the rim unprotected, or drop back and leave Horford wide open for a three. Horford has punished defenders who’ve made the latter choice by logging a 70 percent true shooting percentage throughout these playoffs. His ability to spread the floor will continue to be critical in moving Embiid away from the hoop.
Horford’s shooting is a newish wrinkle, but he’s always been one of the game’s better defensive centers. The unit he captained this year finished first in defensive rating, and even without Jaylen Brown last night, the Celtics looked imposing. Essentially everyone who logs minutes for Philly besides J.J. Redick is 6-foot-9 or taller, and Horford helped keep every Sixer besides Embiid (whom he rarely guarded one-on-one) nice and quiet. He’s the ideal defender to throw at Philly’s all-arms team. He’s perfectly comfy checking a super-sized point guard driving in from the perimeter:
He can even stand tall against Embiid if he has to:
The Sixers played like dogshit last night, and you can bet that they won’t shoot 5-for-26 from three again this series. Though they have home court and a better coach, Philly may still have them beat on talent. Boston will need to keep finding inventive ways to score while stymying Philly’s lengthy attack, and their ability to do that begins and ends with Horford. The more control he has, the better the Celtics’ chances will be.