Al Horford's return brought Celtics a ‘calming presence'


BOSTON — Joel Embiid had decided to take up residence in the paint and, well, there didn’t seem much that Celtics backup big man Daniel Theis could do to stop the Sixers’ All-Star. Late in the third quarter of Tuesday’s Christmas Day showdown, Embiid muscled Theis into the charge circle then thrust his posterior into the German's hip. The entry pass came soon after and, with a quick dribble, Embiid delivered a powerful two-handed slam.

On the sideline beyond the Boston bench, Al Horford laid sprawled on his back as a trainer worked on the bothersome knee that had forced the Celtics’ All-Star big man to sit out seven straight games and limited his floor time on Tuesday. As Embiid scored his team’s final eight points of the third frame in less than a two-minute span, nudging the Sixers out front, it felt like the clock couldn’t move fast enough for a Boston team waiting to deploy minute-restricted Horford.

That call came 80 seconds into the final frame and, with it, Embiid essentially disappeared. Despite entering the fourth quarter with 30 points and 11 rebounds, Embiid made only one more field goal and scored a mere four points over the final 17 minutes of play as the Celtics rode some Kyrie Irving heroics to a 121-114 overtime triumph at TD Garden.

After the game, Embiid would lament his lack of touches in the fourth quarter and overtime, but to suggest the Sixers simply forgot to the get the big man the ball would diminish the job that Horford and a steady stream of help defenders did in essentially making Philly’s All-Star a nonfactor.

The Celtics have leaned heavy on Aron Baynes the past two seasons with hopes of making Embiid work for his points. But with Baynes sidelined with a broken hand, much of that responsibility fell on Horford on Tuesday. Despite still working through knee soreness, Horford defended Embiid on a staggering 56 possessions, the most possessions defended by a single player on the night. Embiid finished with 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting against Horford but also had five turnovers.

For sake of comparison, Theis defended 15 Embiid possessions and gave up 16 points on 4-of-4 shooting. That’s not a knock on Theis and even Stevens shrugged off his struggles after the game by noting, “[Embiid]’s just a load.  He’s really good. And he’s really quick, he’s really skilled, and he’s just huge.”

But that only makes what Horford and the Celtics did over the final 17 minutes all that more impressive.

Here’s the number that leaps off the page: In the 10 minutes of floor time that Embiid played without Horford on the court, Philadelphia had an offensive rating of 108.7 and a net rating of plus-24.7. In the 30 minutes that Horford and Embiid shared the floor, Philadelphia’s offensive rating plummeted to 95.5 and the team had a net rating of minus-4.5 overall.

Horford’s effort wasn’t lost on teammates.

"Very important, man. For a guy that had to be all over Embiid all game — we weren’t doubling or nothing — withstanding that the entire game and overtime, especially not having Baynes in there and things like that, I think Al took on a heavy load and did a great job,” said Marcus Morris.

To be fair, the Celtics did seem to send extra attention at Embiid late in the game but Horford did an admirable job of preventing Embiid from getting to spots where he could continue his early-game dominance.

“[Horford] just brings a calming presence,” said Irving. “[There’s] nothing like having a plus-12[-year] vet out there that knows how to play basketball. He makes the game a lot easier with screening, rebounding, defense, all the intangibles that just demand that effort. And he’s just always locked in, in the game plan. 

"Al may not say a lot but he knows a lot and, for me, I like to lean on him for leadership and just keeping our bigs focused and knowing what the game plan is.”

Baynes, despite his limited floor time, is quite the luxury for the Celtics and he has routinely taken the lion’s share of Embiid reps when these teams meet, including in last year’s playoffs. But It was a good sign that Horford was able to raise his level of play in a national showdown.

Maybe it’s the knee issues but Horford has looked a step slow at times early in the year. To his credit, his block numbers are up a half a block this season and Horford sits 13th in the NBA at 1.6 blocks per game, so he’s still using his basketball IQ to recover when he’s late.

If Horford is hobbled by the knee, he hasn’t let it impact his hustle. Last season, he ranked 11th in the NBA while contesting 12.3 shots per game. That number is up to 14.2 per game this season, even though he’s playing two fewer minutes per contest.

Defensive data logged by Synergy Sports has Horford defending a team-high 348 total possessions this year and allowing 0.917 points per play. For the 68 defenders with at least that many possessions defended this season, Horford ranks 39th among them. That’s jarring when you consider Horford ranked sixth among all NBA players with at least 500 possessions defended last season while allowing 0.799 points per play.

Maybe that’s why the Celtics were so aggressive in combating Horford’s knee soreness. Even as the team went into a three-game skid this month, culminating with a very public team meeting last week, the team put a priority on getting Horford’s knee right with a goal of ensuring it wouldn’t be an issue later in the year. For a team that lost Irving to knee issues last postseason, they didn’t want a reoccurrence this spring.

A healthy Horford is vital to the success of this team. During last year’s playoff run, Boston’s defensive rating rose by 5 points per 100 possessions when Horford wasn’t on the court. And just look back at the Celtics-Sixers playoff series for further confirmation of Horford’s impact in helping corral Embiid. During the 57 minutes that Horford wasn’t on the court with Embiid during last year’s playoffs, the Sixers had an offensive rating of 115.1 and a net rating of plus-22.6. In the 130 minutes they shared, Philadelphia’s offensive rating dipped to 97.4 with a minus-2.6 net rating.

Horford’s impact is always hard to quantify, especially when his basic stat line rarely pops off the page. Even on Christmas Day, it would be easy to look at Horford’s line — 2-of-10 shooting, including five missed 3s — and assume he really struggled against Embiid. Offensively, he most certainly did. But the Celtics might never have gotten to Irving’s own heroics if Horford didn’t help corral Embiid.

And it’s probably no coincidence that the Celtics are 2-0 since Horford (and Morris) returned to the starting lineup this week. Just like Irving suggested, Horford simply has a way of calming these Celtics when they need it most.

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