MILWAUKEE - There were many nights this season when Al Horford could have suited up and played but instead the Boston Celtics chose to rest him, knowing that there would come a time when they would need him to be at or pretty damn close to his best.
We saw that on Sunday afternoon against the Milwaukee Bucks with Horford leading the way to a surprising 112-90 win over the top-seeded Bucks.
The fact that Horford had a double-double of 20 points and 11 rebounds was nice.
Horford racked up a trio of blocked shots, including a pair of Antetokounmpo shot's at the rim which rarely happens.
Yeah. That was cool, too.
But what really set the night off for Horford and the Celtics, was the job he did defensively against Giannis Antetoukounmpo.
Giannis had 22 points for the game, but did so on 7-for-21 shooting from the field.
It was the kind of game that raised a ton of questions for Antetokounmpo as Horford appeared to have found the cheat code on how to limit the Greek Freak’s impact.
“He’s such a great player,” Horford said. “Our focus was to make sure that we just made it tough on him every time. All our guys at different times were on him and were involved in the play; just making sure that he earned everything he got. I felt like we did a really good job of that.”
While Horford is spot-on when he points to how his teammates were factors in how well Boston defended Antetokounmpo, there’s no getting around Horford’s play was the catalyst to Boston’s highly successful defensive game plan.
“We said all year you can’t overstate Al Horford’s importance to our team,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “Obviously, the numbers back that up.”
Stevens was talking about Horford’s impact scoring the ball, but he could have just as easily been referring to the not-so-great numbers posted by Antetokounmpo who seemed flustered and visibly frustrated most of the game.
Antetokounmpo saw multiple defenders pretty much every time he tried to make a move in half court sets, and Horford’s ability to get back defensively did not allow Antetokounmpo many opportunities at easy baskets on the break.
“If they’re going to play like this the whole series, I just have to make the right pass, and trust my teammates to knock down shots,” Antetokounmpo said.
But that’s easier said than done, especially in a season in which defenses have tried repeatedly to slow him down with size, double-teaming and quickness but to no avail.
And then there’s Al Horford who delivered one of his best performances of the season, a performance that he readily admits was aided in part by the way the Celtics training staff has managed his playing time and strategic rest.
The 32-year-old Horford averaged just 29.0 minutes per game which is the first time in his 11-plus seasons he has averaged less than 30 minutes per game. He missed 14 games which is the third straight year he has averaged double-digit games missed. Prior to the last three years, Horford never missed double-digit games in back-to-back seasons let alone three in a row.
“It was very helpful for me,” Horford said. “I wanted to be at my best when it got to this point in the season. And, our medical staff and our coaches being conscious of that, understood we needed to make some sacrifices during the season. And, I felt like they managed it perfectly and now we’re in a good position, the place that we want to be and just trying to make the most of it.”
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