MILWAUKEE — Earlier this week, after a stretch of games in which Celtics big man Al Horford had bottled up the likes of Kristaps Porzingis, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, Boston coach Brad Stevens wanted to put the spotlight on a player who would never request it upon himself.
“A lot of names get thrown around, rightfully so, in the defensive talk around the league. There’s a lot of really good defenders, but Al’s up there and doesn’t always get mentioned, and that’s OK with Al,” Stevens said after Tuesday’s win over the New York Knicks. “I think that he’s kind of proven that he’s OK with just contributing to winning and whether he gets talked about or not. But he was great on Simmons on Friday [and] he was unbelievable [Tuesday] on Porzingis.”
So when the Celtics trekked to Milwaukee on Thursday night for a rematch with a Bucks team that had spoiled Boston’s home-opener, Stevens deployed Horford with a single mission: Do what no team has done this season and at least slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo.
A cursory look at the box score won’t tell the full story considering Antetokounmpo finished with a game-high 28 points. But that’s nearly nine points less than his scoring average entering the game, and Horford made Antetokounmpo work for his points on 10-of-21 shooting (47.6 percent); the Greek Freak was shooting 66 percent from the floor entering the game.
Horford would have gotten Stevens’ gold star just for his defensive exploits, but Boston’s veteran big man added a season-high 27 points on 11-of-14 shooting (78.6 percent) to propel Boston to a 96-89 win at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena. Thirteen of those points came in the third quarter when Horford caught fire, including from beyond the arc, where he made 4-of-5 3-pointers overall on the night.
Kyrie Irving places a perfect pass to Al Horford, who just beats the third-quarter buzzer.
In typical Horford fashion, he downplayed his efforts, both crediting Marcus Smart for suggesting he wander beyond the 3-point line on offense and praising the coaches for putting him in position to make Antetokounmpo work on the defensive end.
“I think that coach does a good job preparing us and, as a group, we’ve done a good job,” said Horford. “[Teammate Aron] Baynes has been unbelievable because I can get out there and chase those guys around and know that if I get in a jam, he’s got my back there to kind of contest and stuff. It’s just been nice to see, but I feel like all our guys have stepped up to the challenge, and we’ve done a good job defending.”
Downplay it as he might, Horford has been spectacular, especially considering the assignments he’s drawn early in the season. According to defensive data logged by Synergy Sports, Horford has allowed a mere 0.627 points per play while defending a team-high 67 possessions. For a means of comparison, the Celtics as a whole are allowing 0.892 points per play this season, the sixth-best mark in the league in the infancy of the 2017-18 season.
“Horford can move his feet. You’ve got to give him credit,” said Bucks coach Jason Kidd. “They packed the paint and made it extremely tough on Giannis. Again, Giannis had some great looks. He also found some teammates. He did what he was supposed to do.”
The Celtics succeeded just by getting Antetokounmpo to defer to teammates; he was coming off a 32-point, 14-rebound effort in a win over the Charlotte Hornets. In Milwaukee’s opener against Boston, Antetokounmpo put up 37 points (on 13-of-22 shooting) and added 13 rebounds. He’s already generating buzz about MVP consideration.
The 31-year-old Horford remains the extremely underappreciated veteran on a Boston roster in which seven of the 13 available bodies for Brad Stevens on Friday night did not play in the NBA last season. With the goal of bringing Baynes off the bench to match up with Milwaukee’s Greg Monroe, the Celtics started rookie German-import Daniel Theis next to Horford in the frontcourt.
Horford wasn’t perfect against Antetokounmpo, but he did his best to contest shots (shaking his head when the Bucks’ forward hit some tough jumpers with a hand in his face) and keep Antetokounmpo in front of him. Baynes nearly got decapitated when he stepped up to prevent one of the handful of Antetokounmpo drives on the night, but it only hammered home Horford’s overall effort to corral him.
“Aww man, [Horford] makes the game a lot easier, he covers it up for a lot of your mistakes,” said Kyrie Irving. “And he never takes a play off, which is great. To have a veteran like that, that understands how young and how youthful we are but also being able to communicate it and be able to fix things on the fly, it’s truly a pleasure playing with a guy like that.”
Horford admitted it’s not easy to defend Antetokounmpo.
“He’s a guy that, he wills his way to the paint, and the big challenge for me was to try to keep him in front and stay in between him and the basket and make him shoot over me,” said Horford. “And I did the best that I could with that, just make sure that I contested all those shots near the basket. We had some mistakes there, and he was able to get free at times, but we felt like we did a good job on him.”
Stevens knows Horford’s efforts won’t launch him into All-Defense consideration, but his impact isn’t lost on Boston brass, who routinely notes that all Horford has done throughout his basketball career is win.
In the aftermath of Gordon Hayward’s potentially season-ending injury, Boston needs Horford to continue doing all those under-the-radar things that can keep Boston competitive.