Al Horford’s return reminds us what the Celtics have missed, and what they can be
The Boston Celtics went 4-5 in the nine games Al Horford missed while working his way through the NBA’s concussion protocol, turning in a middling offense while falling in the bottom third of the league in points allowed per possession during that three-week stretch. Brad Stevens and company were thrilled to get their $113 million man back in the middle of their lineup … and Horford wasted precious little time showing why. [restrict]
After a 3-pointer by Tobias Harris knotted the score at 92 with 23 seconds remaining, the Celtics had the ball and a chance to win Saturday’s nip-and-tuck battle with the Detroit Pistons in the final moments. Celtics All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas pitched the ball to Horford well above the 3-point arc, then raced off the big man’s hip for a dribble handoff, with Horford setting a screen that plastered Detroit guard Ish Smith. Thomas turned the corner and raced into the paint, drawing three Piston defenders to him before slinging the ball to swingman Jae Crowder — who was also making his return to the Celtics lineup after missing seven games with a sprained ankle — in the corner for an open 3-pointer.
Crowder’s shot came up short, but a Herculean effort by Marcus Smart …
… kept the ball alive for Horford to get his hands on it and put it back up, giving the Celtics a 94-92 lead with 1.3 seconds remaining.
The Pistons still had one more crack at answering, but Horford slammed the door:
With such little time remaining, the Pistons needed to inbound and get a shot up as quickly as possible. Point guard Beno Udrih found Aron Baynes at the left elbow, but Horford was absolutely all over him, rejecting the last-ditch effort to scuttle Detroit’s hoped-for comeback and seal a strong two-point road win.
It was a fitting end to a stellar return for Horford, who finished with 18 points on 7-for-12 shooting, 11 rebounds, five assists, three blocks, two steals and just one turnover in 34 minutes of work — precisely the kind of “fill in all the blanks” performance the Celtics hoped to see when they targeted the former Atlanta Hawks pivot in free agency. From Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald:
“Take us home, big fella,” Amir Johnson called to Horford across the dressing room. “Take us to the promised land. Glad you’re back, man.”
Horford replied that he was just happy to be playing again after going down in practice on the last day of October.
“I felt really good,” he said later. “(It was) just very frustrating these past few weeks, dealing with a lot of different things. And finally I’m at the point where I feel good enough that I was ready to play.
“It just feels good, honestly, just to come out with a win. I felt like we did some good things, but then we would let them back in the game. I’m just glad that we were able to pull the game out.”
The Celtics did so, in part, because they finally had all their pieces in place. With Horford and Crowder back in the fold, Stevens could return to his preferred starting five — those two plus Thomas, Johnson and Avery Bradley — which outscored Detroit by three points in 11 minutes of floor time, and which in limited usage has been Boston’s most effective lineup of the season, outscoring opponents by 13 points in 50 shared minutes.
Their return also afforded Stevens the opportunity to turn to a smaller, snarlier look — one that paid dividends against a Detroit team that would prefer to play big, as Jay King of masslive.com notes:
With a full roster for the first time this season, the Celtics unveiled what might be their most interesting lineup: the IT and D unit, featuring Thomas, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder and Horford.
That’s a tiny, relentless group — and it gave Detroit fits during important moments. According to NBA.com, that unit combined to shoot 7 for 11 over seven minutes of action, and even rebounded three of its four misses. Among Celtics lineups, only the starting five received more playing time. Despite some defensive lapses, the IT and D lineup outscored the Pistons 18-14 — the group essentially closed both halves, suggesting head coach Brad Stevens wanted to save it for critical times. [/restrict]