By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics are a mere win away from avoiding disaster and advancing to the second round of the postseason for the first time in the Brad Stevens era. The team has pulled itself out of an ugly 2-0 series hole against a shorthanded Chicago Bulls team, but the path has not been easy. Whether it’s been starting lineup changes or a perimeter shooting slump (Boston is shooting 32 percent from 3-point range in series), Brad Stevens has had to juggle a rotation that is chock full of players with varying levels of production night in and night out.
In Boston’s past two postseason defeats, there was no bigger area of inconsistency on the team than the frontcourt. Whether it was Jared Sullinger, Amir Johnson, Tyler Zeller, Brandon Bass, Kelly Olynyk or Jonas Jerebko, the only thing Stevens could count on is not knowing what he would get out of that cast of characters when the stakes were raised.
That reality changed throughout the 2016-17 regular season after Danny Ainge signed Al Horford to a four-year, $113 million deal. The production (14 points, 7 rebounds per game) from the 6-foot-10 big man did not align with a player on a max contract some nights, but the four-time All-Star has quieted those critics this postseason. He’s showcased himself as one of the most versatile big men in the East and it’s easy to point to several aspects of his game in the Celtics-Bulls series to see how.
“We’re thrilled [Horford] chose to be here,” Brad Stevens said after Boston’s Game 5 victory on Wednesday night.
Horford is second on the team in scoring during the series, averaging 16 points per game on a team-leading 56.1 field goal percentage. That’s nearly a 10 percentage point jump from his regular season field goal percentage despite the veteran taking an equal amount of shots.
The seasoned big man is also just in his third season of stretching out his perimeter shot to 3-point range, but you wouldn’t guess that with his averages, hitting a team-best 50 percent from downtown on 12 attempts. Whether it’s rolling to the hoop after setting picks for Isaiah Thomas or dragging Robin Lopez out of the paint with his range, Horford’s established himself as a reliable secondary scoring threat.
The Bulls’ frontcourt have been a thorn in the C’s side all series long on the offensive glass, largely due to the immense size of Robin Lopez. However, since Stevens slotted Horford in the center spot in Game 3, the Bulls’ impact on the glass has been dramatically reduced. The C’s primarily have Horford to thank for that progress. No. 42 is leading the Celtics in rebounds per game (9.0) in this series and has grabbed nearly double the amount of defensive rebounds (35) than his next closest teammate (Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder have 20). Overall, Horford is grabbing 23.3 percent of all available defensive boards, a six percent jump from his regular season numbers.
What player is leading the Celtics in postseason assists? Isaiah Thomas? Marcus Smart? Nope, it’s the same guy who is leading the team in rebounds. Horford has dished out 6.4 assists per game against Chicago, helping propel Boston to a 134 offensive rating with him on the court. He’s been a pivotal decision maker after receiving passes out of the pick-and-roll and he’s been a reliable one as well. The big man has turned the ball over just seven total times in the series, just one-third of the total of Isaiah Thomas (21 turnovers).
Those varying abilities have not gone unnoticed in the locker room either.
“He does everything,” Olynyk said of Horford after Game 5. “He’s very versatile, multi-skilled, talented, does so many things you can’t pinpoint one thing. For us he does so much stuff, communicating, keeping us together. It’s big time for us, and we need him.”
“That’s what we need him to do,” Isaiah Thomas said of Horford’s heavy on-court responsibilities. “He’s a hell of a player. Even the stat sheet doesn’t explain how good of a player he is sometimes where he’s not scoring or rebounding, he’s doing a lot of things to help out everybody else on this team, whether that be help-side defense, whether that be making the right play on offense, he’s a complete basketball player. And when he plays like he did [in Game 5], especially in the second half, nine times out of 10 we usually win those games.”
So while Thomas will continue get the headlines for his offense, and Avery Bradley for his defense on Jimmy Butler, it’s important to realize that the biggest game changer in this series for Boston has been Horford.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.