WALTHAM, Mass – Brad Stevens knows, even if he had a full complement of talent available, the Celtics will need multiple players to step up their play in their first-round series against Milwaukee.
That said, no Celtic will be under greater scrutiny in this series than Al Horford.
The reason is two-fold.
Boston went into the season with a Big Three model, only to enter the postseason with one member of that talented triumvirate healthy – Al Horford. And while he is praised for his versatility to contribute in a multitude of ways, his job in this series will be to do what no one has done this season – slow down fellow All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“I trust Al to guard any position because he can really move his feet, he’s got great size and length, and his attention to detail is excellent,” said Stevens. “That said, it’s not on one person’s matchup the entire night. We have to throw a lot of different bodies at him.”
But as we saw in the four regular-season games against Milwaukee, even that won’t be enough to shut him down.
In the four games against Boston – with both teams winning two games apiece - Antetokounmpo averaged a staggering 33.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game while shooting 53.9 percent from the field and 25.0 percent from 3-point range.
Still, Horford, while far removed from shutting him down, was arguably Boston’s best defender when matched up against Antetokounmpo.
According to NBA.com/stats, the Greek Freak was 14-for-29 (48.2 percent) from the field when Horford was the primary defender. The rest of Boston’s defenders collectively allowed Antetokounmpo to shoot 56.7 percent (34-for-60) from the field in the four games played this season. Horford, a strong candidate to be named to one of the NBA’s all-defensive teams this season, is aware of how daunting a task it will be for the Celtics to limit Antetokounmpo’s impact.
“I think it’s just his ability to finish, and you know he’s a really athletic player that’s able to finish extremely well around the rim,” Horford said. “And just his ability to also get on the break and create chaos that way. So it’s just important for us to make sure that we’re between him and the basket as much as we can and just making sure that he’s not getting anything easy – easier said than done. He’s had some big games against us this year but that’s the point of emphasis that we have had heading into this series.”
And as much as the focus for Boston will be on how to collectively limit Antetokounmpo, all eyes will still be on Horford and how well – or woeful – he is defensively against Antetokounmpo.
“The way that I look at it is I’m not going up against him, we’re going up against the Bucks, and a guy like him, you have to be able to contain him as a unit,” Horford said. “And that’s our mindset for the game.”
The Celtics will attack Antetokounmpo with a multitude of defenders throughout this series. Along with Horford, look for Boston’s Jaylen Brown, Semi Ojeleye and Jayson Tatum to spend time defending Antetokounmpo.
But ultimately, the Celtics will be counting on Horford to make a significant impact.
“I mean just in general Al’s very important,” Stevens said. “He’s important to the whole growth of our organization and to what we try to accomplish in practice and games. I don’t think he’s any more or less important, he’s just always been really important. Yeah, he’s good.”