Five takeaways from C's win vs. Pistons: Strong return for Horford
BOSTON -- When a player returns after being sidelined with an injury, no one has a feel for what they can or can not do.
Instinct tells you to set the expectation level low, and hope they can surprise you with a decent performance.
Al Horford didn’t do that.
After missing nine games with a concussion, Horford didn’t return to playing at a pre-concussion level.
He was better; better in just about every phase of the game in fact.
And that play propelled Boston to a hard-fought 94-92 win at Detroit on Saturday.
But the victory did more than just pad the Celtics victory total.
It reminded us all as to why Boston was so willing to give him a four-year, $113 million deal while having a number of teams offering up a similar contract.
Here are five takeaways from having Horford back in the mix.
BETTER BALL MOVEMENT
The Celtics have been pretty good at keeping the ball moving most of the season, evident by them ranking among the league’s leaders in passes made per game (330.6, 2nd in the NBA) and assists per game (23.9, 7th in the NBA).
But there was a clear and undeniable improvement in their ball movementon Saturday.
It wasn’t just that a lot of different hands were involved; but the ball moved from one side of the floor to the other more consistently which was needed against a Detroit defense that has been among the NBA’s best most of this season.
RELIABLE FRONTCOURT REBOUNDING
Boston’s starting frontcourt only had 29 points, but that’s still a pretty good total considering two of the three (Horford and Jae Crowder) had not played in a couple of weeks and the third big, Amir Johnson, isn’t much of a scorer.
Horford’s replacement, Kelly Olynyk, had a couple of big scoring games (his first two starts, actually) when he scored 19 and 16 points, respectively. But in the four games afterwards, Olynyk has tallied a total of just 20 points.
With Horford back in the fold, the Celtics have a big man who has been a consistent scorer throughout his career which should help take some of the scoring pressure off of Boston’s backcourt tandem of Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley.
Horford’s return also means Kelly Olynyk returns to the bench and that’s a good thing. The Celtics’ second unit has been in a state of uncertainty most of the season due to Horford’s concussion and the domino effect it has had on this roster.
Players are now starting to get into the roles they were expected to play this season, which should make for both a better starting unit and a bench that now has more bodies to throw at opponents on a nightly basis.
*BIGGER ‘SMALL-BALL’ LINEUP
The Celtics can better utilize a ‘small-ball’ lineup that isn’t as small any more with Horford being able to slide over to center with 6-foot-6 Jae Crowder and 6-4 Marcus Smart joining him in a five-man unit that also includes Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley.
It’s a unit that you should get accustomed to seeing down the stretch this season due to the group’s versatility, shot-making and defensive acumen.
You take Horford out of the equation and this unit becomes appreciably weaker on multiple levels.
One of the biggest intangibles with Al Horford has been his leadership. While it has never been questioned, it hasn’t always been a front-and-center, in-your-face kind of thing, either.
It’s little things like directing Isaiah Thomas to pick up a certain player before they get the ball in their hands, or calling out a switch with Amir Johnson that leads to a turnover.
But what has been the hallmark of Horford’s leadership has been his ability to lead by example.
And the Pistons game was the kind of performance that speaks volumes about the type of player he is, and what he means to this team.
There were key plays made by those around him all game, but it wasn’t just a coincidence that Horford wound up making the game-winning basket and then making a game-securing block as time expired.
Those were both plays that your most talented guys on the floor, your leaders, make often.