Just days shy of his 36th birthday, the Celtics big man is averaging 11.9 points on 50 percent shooting (43.2 % from 3), 9.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks this postseason as he enters the NBA Finals against Golden State.
But it’s what his presence has allowed the Celtics to do as a whole that is perhaps his largest contribution to the club’s ascension this year. Horford has made the Celts a much better defensive team because he’s created a different defensive paradigm.
Danny Ainge was lauding his successor as president of basketball operations, Brad Stevens, and discussing with Heavy.com whether he would have made the same moves when he touched on a key element to the Celtic success that has them on the verge of the first trip to the NBA Finals since 2010.
Stevens gave up a first round pick with Kemba Walker to get Horford and Moses Brown from Oklahoma City (Brown was later moved to Dallas for Josh Richardson). Ainge was known to hold tight to his first-rounders — and with some good reason: four of them now start for the Celtics.
But there was more to this trade.
“I think that, by moving Kemba,” Ainge told Heavy, “it allowed Marcus (Smart), Jaylen (Brown) and Jayson (Tatum) and Robert Williams to really thrive in positional size, with Horford taking up a big responsibility in the front line for Robert and moving Jaylen, Jayson and Marcus to their positions where they can have size advantages.
“It’s just a better fit. I think that is really clear.”
Ainge: Celtics Defense ‘So Much Better’
Tatum as a small forward, Brown as a guard and Smart at the point presented more imposing resistance than at power forward, small forward and shooting guard, respectively. As a result, the Celtics were the top-rated defense in the NBA this season, and their metrics were even better when focusing on the dramatic changes following their mid-season surge.
Gone from years past was the ability of other clubs to hunt bad mismatches with the first five. The Celts could now switch most everything and give up little to nothing. And their size and physicality could break down opponents over the course of the night.
“I think it makes your defense so much better,” said Ainge. “You don’t really have any weak holes in your defense at all. There’s a lot of small players that we had, with Kemba and Isaiah Thomas, and Kyrie (Irving) had pretty good size for a point guard, but he was smaller. Sometimes there’s some defensive liability with those great small players.
“You don’t have the same dynamic offensive point guard in Marcus, but he brings such a different element with his ability to pass and his ability to post up and rebound. But more than anything, the versatility that he has to be able to guard 1 through 5, I mean, that’s really increased the defensive ability of their team.”
As Ainge has told Heavy.com previously, he still follows the Celtics closely and maintains strong ties to the organization (his son Austin is the assistant general manager). And he communicates with Stevens, whom he hired as coach in 2013.
“I’m really impressed by what Brad has done in his first year. I think he’s done an excellent job,” Ainge said. “Going into the season, I didn’t think he was certain of what he had for depth on the bench, and getting Josh Richardson and even (Dennis) Schroder were good acquisitions. You know, getting Al so you could play a bigger brand of basketball while adding a solid veteran player around their core four players was something that’s had a big impact on this season.
“I know that Al wanted to come back to Boston, so that was good, too. And then to make the changes during the season, to see that there were opportunities to improve, was also important. It wasn’t like Schroder wasn’t playing well; Schroder was playing well, but it probably wasn’t a great fit to finish games with Marcus and Schroder. And, you know, Schroder came with the idea that he was going to play a really big role. So I think that Brad recognized the challenge that the coach may have had, and the move freed up playing time for other guys — and (Payton) Pritchard has played really well since the trade of Schroder, so that was good, too.”
Stevens Made Bold Move With Derrick White Trade
Looking at the season in the context of a single game, the Celtics scouted and prepared, then made adjustments that have given them a chance to win in crunch time. It’s hard to say whether Ainge would have traded Richardson, Romeo Langford, a first round pick and the right to swap first rounders in 2028 to San Antonio for Derrick White, but he’s always liked his game. And there’s no question White has played a critical role for Boston, particularly when filling in during Smart’s injury absences.
“Brad and Ime (Udoka, the coach) and Mike (Zarren, assistant general manager) and Austin, all of them, they created a team and there was some uncertainty of how it was going to play when the season started,” said Ainge. “And then they saw how it was going, and the team started playing really well before the trade deadline. It looked like they were really starting to gel once they got back healthy, but then the extra moves were just to focus on playing the right players.”
And the right players have the Celtics right where they want to be at this time of the NBA year.