Al Horford is the chameleon the Sixers can't scheme away
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Celtics, Al Horford

BBALLBREAKDOWN

Al Horford is the chameleon the Sixers can’t scheme away

Al Horford is the chameleon the Sixers can’t scheme away

The Boston Celtics reeled off a resounding Game 1 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. Head coach Brad Stevens dialed up his “hit a bunch of threes” offense and it worked. Boston drained 17 of those suckers on a 48.6 percent clip while the Sixers were only able to hit five of their 26 attempts.

“Scary” Terry Rozier (29-8-6-2-1) donned a Drew Bledsoe before the game, but his play was reminiscent of the late Terry Glenn. He constantly burned whoever stood in his wake, mixing in pull-up triples and dazzling drives. Jayson Tatum (28 points) was a smooth operator, getting buckets from all over the floor.

The player of the game, though, was Al Horford. He finished the night with 26 points, seven rebounds, four assists, and was a game-high plus-18 along with Tatum. He filled in whatever gaps were vacant. He kept the ball moving, sprinkled in jumpers and hooks. sprung teammates free with angled picks, and quarterbacked a defense that generated a 101.4 defensive rating while he was on the floor.

Getting busy on the block

Al Horford isn’t an aggressive scorer, but he is a skilled one. He can score in a multitude of ways, though he’s been particularly effective on the block. Horford shot nearly 62 percent from the field in post situations in the first round. Boston doesn’t want to go to the well too often, but Horford is skilled enough to do so.

Here, he gets a post touch after Philly takes away the Tatum curl. Horford is patient, jostles with Dario Saric, then splashes a fadeaway in his grill:

Here, Horford is tasked with saving another possession towards the end of the clock. Joel Embiid has the assignment and mostly does his job. But as the old adage goes: great offense will always beat great defense:

Horford gets mean when a “small” is switched on him. Watch how he goes to work against Marco Belinelli:

Horford and Shane Larkin hook up on a high pick-and-roll to force the switch. Horford doesn’t waste time establishing position, and he attacks immediately off the catch. Ben Simmons hesitates to rotate over, partly because it isn’t his responsibility, but also because he knows Horford can easily throw a dart to the corner. The lack of help leads to an easy dunk.

Pick-and-roll versatility

Horford is one of the most difficult players to account for in pick-and-roll. He has soft touch around the rim and can finish with either hand. He handles the ball well enough to make plays off of slips or short-rolls. His ability to spread the floor makes him a pick-and-pop threat. And above all else, Horford’s understanding of angles makes him one of the league’s most effective screeners. He almost always springs the ball-handler open.

Marcin Gortat may be the only other big that angles his body as effectively as Horford does. There isn’t much contact here, but Horford’s positioning forces Belinelli to take a wider path to track Larkin. That gives Larkin room to jet down the lane, forcing Amir Johnson to step up in containment. From there, Larkin freezes Johnson with a jump-stop, then slips a doozy to Horford for the finish.

Not even a minute later, Horford and Rozier get together for their two-man dance:

Again, the angle of Horford’s body forces Ben Simmons over. The threat of a Rozier pull-up triple forces Dario Saric to step up. With two to the ball, Rozier makes the simple read to Horford on the slip. Johnson does a nice job of contesting the catch, but Horford controls the lob, pivots, then sprinkles in the push shot.

Horford mixed up his approach in the second half. Instead of slipping, he popped out beyond the arc:

This may shock you, but the angle from Horford forces Simmons over. Joel Embiid instinctively steps up despite Marcus Smart handling the rock. Smart steps back to his left to pull Simmons further away from Horford before feeding him. Embiid is in no position to defend the shot, and you know what happens next.

Horford’s last bucket of the night came on another pick-and-pop:

Philly goes with an ICE look in the middle of the floor, which is … odd to say the least. Horford immediately recognizes JJ Redick’s positioning (which pretty much screamed “WE’RE FORCING THIS DOWNHILL”), so he decides to get creative. Instead of screening Redick, he practically boxes him out. That’s probably not legal, but the nature of the move put Horford in position to catch the ball in rhythm. Larkin drives into the teeth of the defense, drawing the attention of both defenders. He makes the kick-out pass from there, and Horford drills the shot.

Getting others open

Of course, those are just plays where Horford is the beneficiary. He played a pivotal role in the big nights of Tatum and Rozier. This, for example, was way too easy:

Horford is stationed on the left wing for some two-man action with Tatum. Embiid has to account for Horford’s ability to shoot, so he’s forced to step out on the perimeter. That frees up the lane for Tatum, who burns Redick on a backdoor cut. Horford reads the advantages instantly and delivers the goods.

A little later in the quarter, Horford finds Rozier for an open three-ball:

Horford sets a pindown for Marcus Morris before relocating to the corner. Rozier finds Horford, who quickly attacks Embiid’s front foot due to his wild close-out. Recognizing Embiid is beat, Robert Covington drops down to thrwart the drive. Horford reads the Covington rotation and finds an open Rozier.

This, my friends, is what hustle will do for you:

The Sixers have a transition opportunity with Simmons at the helm. Boston mostly gets back, but Horford busts his butt do disrupt Simmons’ foray to the rim. Simmons stops-and-pops with a little push shot that doesn’t go. Horford grabs the board, then chucks a bomb downcourt to a streaking Tatum in one fluid motion.

This play from the fourth quarter is subtle, but it highlights Horford’s understanding of the game:

The Celtics force a switch that ends with Belinelli guarding Marcus Morris. Redick comes from the baseline to double Morris, because why the heck wouldn’t he? Rozier vacates the corner, which means it’s up to Embiid (and in part, Simmons) to zone up the weakside to prevent an open three off a kick-out pass. As Rozier relocates, Horford high-tails it on a cut.

That cut sets off a chain reaction. Embiid is caught ball-watching a little, but peeps Horford flashing towards the rim. He takes a step towards Horford, not recognizing that Rozier had relocated to the top of the key. Simmons couldn’t step up to take away Horford because that would leave Tatum open in the corner. The result is yet another wide open three from Rozier.

On a night where Boston’s young guns lit up the scoreboard, it was Horford’s versatility that shined the brightest. His do-it-all skill set is a stark contrast from what the Sixers saw in Round 1. Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside is one of the league’s biggest interior threats on either end. However, Philly’s unique blend of size, shooting, and athleticism rendered him virtually useless.

Horford is too skilled to be schemed out the way Whiteside was. He’s also too smart to fall prey to Philly’s aggressive, sinking scheme. The Sixers will have to tighten up defensively. Help was either late or non-existent, and the pick-and-roll coverage was spotty. You can’t give those kind of advantages to a guy like Horford. As Game 1 proved, he’ll pick you apart if you do.