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We're About to Find Out How Valuable Al Horford Will Be for the Celtics

Michael Pina@@MichaelVPinaFeatured ColumnistNovember 3, 2016

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 26:  Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics looks on during the second quarter against the Brooklyn Nets at TD Garden on October 26, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics signed Al Horford for several obvious reasons that ultimately boil down to these two: (1) he makes them better and (2) he matches up well against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Unfortunately, Horford entered the NBA’s concussion protocol after a teammate accidentally hit his head in practice earlier this week. He missed Wednesday’s night’s game against the Chicago Bulls and also won’t play Thursday night in Cleveland, according to CelticsHub.com's Brian Robb.

But big-picture goals (i.e. a playoff series) aren’t met or denied during the second week of the regular season. And Horford’s past performances against the Cavaliersplus his invaluable skill set and general influence in the Celtics’ opening three gamesstill shed some light on how he can help Boston during a potential (and highly anticipated) postseason clash against the defending champions down the line.

“[Horford] is just gonna do what he does [against Cleveland]," said Isaiah Thomas, the Celtics' leading scorer. "That’s play hard, play really good defense, really good offense, space the floor and hopefully it’s a difference. He’s definitely here to make a difference, especially with those types of teams.”

Before Wednesday's win against the Bulls, Boston had outscored opponents by 12.3 points per 100 possessions with Horford on the floor. When he sat, the team's point differential slid all the way down to minus-10.7. It’s still so early, but Horford has been a seamless fit on the court and in the locker room.

Life feels less complicated when he's on your side. 

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“You know, obviously everybody knows what he brings to the table from a basketball standpoint. I think the thing that, you know, is just Al’s a really good guy,” head coach Brad Stevens said. “He’s a really easy guy to be around. He’s a great teammate. He’s an easy guy to coach. He’s very unselfish. You know, he’s everything that was advertised.”

Oct 29, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA;  Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) blocks the shot of Charlotte Hornets forward Marvin Williams (2) in the first half at the Spectrum Center Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond his accommodating persona, few other bigs double as three-point threats and defensive stoppers. Even fewer still have Horford's passing. The Celtics are shooting 65.5 percent (and 66.7 percent beyond the arc) when he feeds them the ball.

He has the second-highest assist percentage on the team despite ranking eighth in usage rate; 14.4 percent of his passes have resulted in an assist, free-throw assist or secondary assist—one of the highest marks throughout the league at his position.

Horford reads defenses with the patience of a guard. He calmly reacts to double-teams and keeps his eyes open for cutters. The 30-year-old star doesn't hesitate when it’s time to shoot, but few players are more charitable with the ball.

His new teammates don’t take it for granted.

“He has a great IQ,” Jae Crowder said. “He makes it easier for me to know where my shots are coming from. He’s a great passer for his position, and it’s just easy to play off of him.”

The play below shows the effect Horford has against scrambling defenses that lack the confidence to handle him one-on-one. Send help and Horford will make you pay at the exact right time with a perfect pass:

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"I think he’s a mismatch every single game," Avery Bradley said. "He can score every single time he gets the ball or he makes the right play, and so I feel like it’s our job to get him a little more involved and run the offense through him so he can make plays for us."

And even though Cleveland went 8-0 against Horford’s Atlanta Hawks over the past two postseasons, the four-time All-Star still creates matchup problems.

Last year, Cleveland allowed 1.07 points per possession against roll men, the second-highest figure in the league. The Cavaliers tightened things up during the playoffs, but their struggles have carried over into the 2016-17 season

Horford is the first legitimate roll threat Stevens has had since he became head coach of the Celtics, particularly when they dot the arc with respectable three-point shooters. Last year, Boston ranked 27th on possessions that ended with a roll man trying to score. 

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Few centers are more dangerous popping out for a wide-open jumper when the lane is overcrowded. Focus too hard on stopping Horford, and Boston’s speedy ball-handlers will either turn the corner and wreak havoc in the paint or find open three-point shooters spotting up on the weak side. 

The Cavaliers used to just trap Thomas or even switch Tristan Thompson or LeBron James onto him, knowing the screener wasn’t good enough to roll into a post-up and create a mismatch against a smaller defender (such as Iman Shumpert) or make a difficult pass on the move (a la Draymond Green).

But switching and trapping aren’t acceptable strategies anymore.

Additionally, the faster the Celtics run, the more they force Cleveland to play at their preferred tempo and the better chance they have to win. Horford is the rare big who enhances a blistering attack instead of holding it back. He can run fast breaks by himself, make smart decisions in the open floor and force unwanted mismatches against a backpedaling defense.  

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Horford’s defensive contributions may be even more helpful. Cleveland picked Atlanta’s defense apart in the 2015 playoffs, but especially whenever Horford wasn’t on the floor. All these numbers are taken from a small sample size, and there are plenty of bad to go with the good—for example, the Cavaliers shot 66.1 percent within five feet of the hoop when Horford was on the court last year compared to 56.5 percent in the 40 minutes he sat.

But he’s light on his feet, plays angles to perfection and possesses a rare combination of timing, intelligence and length to handle each of Cleveland's Big Three one-on-one. 

Horford has enough lateral quickness to switch on to Kyrie Irving, shadow him for an entire drive and then swat his layup attempt. 

NBA.com

Horford can also serve as a primary defender on LeBron James, whether the Cavaliers go small or stay big. He's strong enough to avoid switches and fast enough to recover in pick-and-roll situations. Not many human beings have success at the rim against James, but at least Horford makes a difference.

NBA.com

In no universe does Horford, by himself, put Boston over the top and make it the prohibitive favorite to come out of the East, but it's hard to argue with his initial impact.

Not having him in the initial matchup against the Cavaliers is a blip in the grand scheme of things. The Celtics brought in Horford to make this team better, and he has. He's also an ideal weapon against the one opponent they want to beat the most.

Unfortunately, we have to wait until December 29 to see them in action.

   

Celtics Insider Notebook

Kelly Olynyk Nearing a Return

Apr 13, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics center Kelly Olynyk (41) prepares to shoot free throws against the Miami Heat during the second half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, Boston's floor-spacing 7-footer told reporters he was a couple of weeks away from his season debut, but he wouldn't put a number on how his surgically repaired shoulder feels right now.

"Percentages are all arbitrary anyways," he said. "It's feeling good though...basketball movements feel really good."

The 25-year-old did not agree on a contract extension with the Celtics before the November 1 deadline, which means he'll be a restricted free agent this summer.

"I mean, I didn’t expect to get one," he said. "I mean, we’re in a position as a team here, we have some room to do stuff in the offseason."

     

The Injury Bug

In addition to Horford's concussion, Boston is also dealing with Bradley's sore shoulder (which limited him in practice earlier this week) and Crowder's sprained ankle that he suffered in the second quarter of Wednesday night's win over Chicago. 

The Celtics are obviously a better team at full strength, but they're also deep enough to solve short-term injuries.

Jaylen Brown, Gerald Green, Marcus Smart and Jonas Jerebko will see more minutes if Crowder misses time, while bigs such as Amir Johnson (23 points) and Tyler Zeller (11 points) came up huge in Horford's absence against the Bulls. 

(Even when Thomas is on the bench, the Celtics offense barely skips a beat, going from 110.3 points per 100 possessions to 108.3 in a 53-minute sample size.)

     

All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of November 2.

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