MINNEAPOLIS -- The criticism never seems to go away when it comes to Al Horford, a player whose numbers seldom reflect what he contributes to winning.
But even he admits he was in a bit of a mini-slump that reached its nadir in a 123-120 loss at Houston, a game in which Horford struggled with his shot in addition to making a couple of key mental mistakes in the final moments.
Horford had a nice bounce-back game in Boston’s win at Chicago, but . . . it was a win at Chicago.
But having a good game against Minnesota and Karl-Anthony Towns -- who, like Horford, is a native of the Dominican Republic -- gives notice that Horford’s back on track.
He had 20 points on 8-for-14 shooting, along with 8 rebounds and 6 assists, in Boston's 117-109 win over the Timberwolves. It was his 11th 20-or-more-points performance of the season.
It was the kind of performance that, while certainly pleasing to Celtics fans, only makes them seemingly more thirsty to see the 31-year-old, five-time All-Star play like that more often.
But Horford insists the criticism from fans, and some circles of the media, doesn’t bother him as long as the team is winning.
“For me, as a player, probably the fans don’t appreciate it, but as players and coaches you know what guys bring and that’s what I’ve always been about, helping my team win,” Horford said. “Of course I want to have bigger games or whatever, but my priority is always putting the team first and I’m OK with that.”
Horford is well aware of the criticism often tossed his way from fans, even though every team he has played for has been to the playoffs . . . including this season’s Celtics, who clinched a postseason berth with Thursday’s victory.
“The way I’ve always approached it, is if we’re winning, people want to talk about me it’s fine,” Horford said. “If we’re losing, then you really get on me and I’ll definitely try to be better to help us win. But I’m fine with it. As long as we’re winning, playing good basketball . . . that’s all I care about.”
Here are five takeaways from Boston’s 117-109 win at Minnesota which clinched a playoff berth for the Celtics.
TAKING CARE OF THE BALL
Limiting turnovers has been one of the Celtics' strengths all season; they are currently eighth in the NBA in fewest turnovers committed (13.7) per game. But against the Timberwolves, Boston was even better at keeping its mistakes to a minimum. The C's had only 11 turnovers, which led to a mere 13 points for the Timberwolves.
BEING AGGRESSIVE OFFENSIVELY
Minnesota’s defense has been really bad this season, something you've never heard said about a Tom Thibodeau-coached team. The Timberwolves have allowed opponents to shoot 47.7 percent from floor, which is 29th-worst in the league. Boston only added to Minnesota's defensive woes for Minnesota, spending most of Thursday’s game shooting above 50 percent from the floor before finishing at 49.4 percent. That aggressiveness was also evident in Boston getting 27 free-throw attempts (20 makes), compared to Minnesota's 13 free throw attempts.
MARCUS MORRIS MATCHUP PROBLEMS
The more he plays, the more Marcus Morris becomes a clear and undeniable matchup challenge for teams. He is the prototype tweener who can create enough space with his dribble to score from beyond the 3-point line and from mid-range. And he’s strong enough to work smaller defenders over in the paint. Against the Timberwolves, he had 17 points on 7-for-15 shooting, but, more than the numbers, Morris’ timely scoring kept the Timberwolves at bay most of the game.
OVERCOMING IN-GAME ADVERSITY
Seeing Jaylen Brown go down in the third quarter certainly was a flashback of sorts fto when Gordon Hayward landed with a hard thud in the season opener and suffered a dislocated left ankle injury that has kept him off the floor all season. Brown’s injury isn’t nearly as severe, evident by him tweeting out that he’s OK other than having a headache. To the Celtics' credit, they were able to put the incident behind them and not lose focus on the goal -- to get a win. And for them to get back to the locker room afterwards and learn that Brown was feeling better, that made the victory that much sweeter.
ON THE RUN
Boston’s transition offense has not been very effective this season. Prior to the All-Star break, the C's were 24th in the league with 9.6 fast-break points per game. Since the break, they’ve actually been even worse: 9.0 fast-break points per game, which ranks 29th in the league. But none of that mattered on Thursday with the Celtics getting out on the break and most important, finishing off plays. Boston had a decisive 14-2 advantage in fast-break points on Thursday.
Kyrie Irving has been at his best at times in the fourth quarter, and Thursday was no exception. He led the Celtics with 23 points, with eight coming in the fourth when the five-time All-Star guard made all three of his field-goal attempts to help secure the win in addition to dishing out a pair of assists.