When GM Elton Brand addressed the media prior to his team’s big win over the Bucks on Christmas Day, he proved to be prophetic.
He talked about the Sixers needing more time to put things together. While he mentioned the phrase “work in progress” several times, he also said that he was “encouraged” by what he’s seen.
Where he proved to have the most foresight was in his description of where veteran Al Horford fits in next to All-Star center Joel Embiid. His vision manifested itself in the way both players defended reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“The Al and Joel pairing, defensively, their versatility, their size, their length makes us one of the top defensive teams,” Brand said. “And team building, looking at the teams that we’re going to face, they had size, they had length. So, being able to combat that really helps us, bodes well for us.”
The Bucks have the best record in the NBA and are in the driver's seat for the East’s top seed. If the Sixers hope to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 2001, there’s a strong chance they’ll have to go through Milwaukee.
Having a playoff-tested player like Horford that’s seen the Greek Freak in the postseason was surely part of the reason Brand looked to sign the 33-year-old so quickly this offseason.
“It was certainly on our mind,” Brett Brown said. “There are lots of other parts of that but this, 'How do you beat Milwaukee?’ was certainly a part of all the discussions. [Wednesday], albeit maybe a little unusual to have your center guarding Giannis, we have, as people know, we've tried this in the past, had mixed results — there's good and bad in there — but tonight, those two were very good. And with Al it was a part of our discussion when we brought him in.”
There are times when Horford, who signed a four-year deal, has looked 33. While he was dealing with left knee soreness and hamstring tightness, it took him some time to look spry again. That was not a concern on Christmas.
Ever the consummate teammate, Horford deflected any praise of his play.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Horford said. “When you guard a guy like that, it’s not individual. It’s a collective effort. But Jo really stepped up to the plate tonight and was great defending him, and contesting his threes, because Giannis has been shooting threes, he has been making them. We were aware of that and we were just very mindful of him, and the rest of our guys were doing a great job of making sure they were helping Joel or myself when we needed it.”
In addition to the team’s defensive effort against Antetokounmpo, its outside shooting played a huge part in the outcome. The Sixers made 21 of 44 threes, a season-high and the most a team has ever made on Christmas.
Horford didn’t shoot the ball well overall (3 of 12), but all three of his makes were from beyond the arc. With Embiid and Ben Simmons taking up so many paint touches, Horford’s willingness to take threes is crucial.
“Offensively, it’s a work in progress,” Brand said. “Getting the spacing, who gets the touches at what time. Joel’s so dominant in the low post, we know he needs to touch the ball. They’re figuring it out there. But we’ll get there. We’ll get there, for sure. And Al coming in at the backup center is playing great dividends for this squad.”
Though his shooting numbers are down across the board — even his free throw shooting — Horford has a track record.
Wednesday’s game was a clear picture of Horford’s fit when all the pieces are clicking.
“But Coach told us before the game, he wants us to continue to shoot the ball with confidence and get good looks,” Horford said. “That’s what we need to keep doing. We have a lot of capable shooters, and obviously we have a lot to prove in that department. But we feel like if we defend, it usually gives us a chance. And tonight was one of those where they started to fall, so it was good to see.”
Though it’s been an up and down season for Horford, he’s showing his true value for when the playoffs begin.
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