Celtics offseason splash Al Horford is already pushing past expectations just two contests into the preseason.
When center Al Horford was touted as the biggest free agent splash in Boston Celtics history upon his signing in early July, many fans balked and rolled their eyes. While he might be a four-time All-Star, Horford is certainly no Kevin Durant, many stipulated as they doubted whether Horford was an addition capable of leaving a substantial mark on the franchise.
However, following Horford’s scintillating showings in the Celtics first two preseason outings, it is hard to dispute the genius of general manager Danny Ainge in acquiring the former Atlanta Hawks lynchpin. Despite the fact that these are simply exhibition games and must be taken at face value, Horford has still performed against the front line of starting frontcourt options for the Philadelphia 76ers and Charlotte Hornets, taking the opposition to task in the process.
In his first 35 minutes in kelly green, Horford has garnered 20 points, 16 rebounds, and an unheard of +41 plus-minus rating. His offensive rating stands at a whopping 122 while his defensive rating rests at 67. What appeals to Boston fans the most is that Horford has enmeshed himself within the offensive system of head coach Brad Stevens exactly as planned, starting with the opening possession of the Celtics narrow loss on Tuesday night against the 76ers.
Immediately out of the gate, Stevens called for Horford’s supposed bread-and-butter, the high screen-and-roll, and it simply worked to perfection. Horford ran out to beyond the three-point arc to pin shooting guard Gerald Henderson, who was swarming point guard Isaiah Thomas. As Philadelphia center Joel Embiid hedged over to defend the possibility of a Thomas penetration to the hoop, Horford ventured over to the left elbow, where he spotted up for a midrange jumper. Thomas then found him with a brilliant bounce pass, and before Embiid could close out, Horford had already pulled the trigger on a beautifully-formed jump shot, which slid through the net with ease.
Over the course of the defeat, Horford set numerous ball screens for both Thomas and shooting guard Avery Bradley, who looks to have the ball in his hands on an increased number of possessions this season. His rapport with the duo appeared smooth. Additionally, Horford ran the floor with ease with multiple fast break scores and garnered eight defensive rebounds, showcasing his effectiveness and leadership ability on both sides of the floor.
Fast forward to Thursday night’s 107-92 thumping of the Hornets, and Horford’s chemistry with his teammates was only turned up a notch. He dominated the post on the offensive side of the ball, as exemplified by his posting up of a helpless Marvin Williams four minutes into the ballgame. Horford created an ocean of room between him and the basket, giving Thomas ample room to feed it to him down low for a score. He continued his pick-and-roll prowess with Thomas as well. With the Celtics trailing by 10 with just over a minute remaining in the first half, Horford met Thomas five feet beyond the perimeter at the top of the key. When Hornets big man Al Jefferson was forced to prevent a Thomas score, Horford wiggled his way to the charity stripe and drilled a contested midrange jumper.
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Horford’s effectiveness in the pick-and-roll game will only offer up more opportunities for other Celtics to improve their scoring numbers as well. Pretty soon, big men will be forced to respect Horford as a shooter and remain glued to him, allowing the penetrating guard to drive to the basket virtually unscathed. Also, the necessity of Horford’s man to hedge on the ballcarrier forces the weak side defender to slide over to pick up the assignment of guarding Horford, leaving an offensive option open for a wide open three-pointer. This sequence was placed on full display with two minutes remaining in the first half against Charlotte. Horford set a screen on Bradley’s man, allowing Bradley to drive to the left wing. When the weak side defender left Thomas alone on the opposite wing, Bradley utilized his improved court vision to swing the ball over to him, allowing Thomas to drill one of his three treys on the night.
Horford even stepped outside and handed us a glimpse of his improved three-point range as well. Early in the third quarter, Horford set an off-ball screen for Bradley, who curled around the wing and caught a pass from center Amir Johnson. Bradley then found a spotting up Horford behind him after taking a penetration dribble, and Horford obliged by knocking down an open three-pointer. If Horford can harm defenses off of the pick-and-roll both inside the arc and out, he could prove himself worthy of having the reputation of the premier free agent splash in Celtics history.