By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — While a pair of youngins are stealing most of the spotlight for the Celtics, lost in Boston’s first complete effort of the season on Tuesday night was the defensive performance of Al Horford.
The 31-year-old forward/center — the eldest member on the young Boston squad — completely shut down Kristaps Porzingis, holding New York’s only bright spot to just 3-for-14 from the floor. Porzingis entered the game averaging 32 points over his first two games, but could only muster 12 in the blowout loss in Boston.
“A lot of names get thrown around, rightfully so, in the defensive talk around the league. I mean, there’s a lot of really good defenders but Al’s up there, and doesn’t always get mentioned, and that’s okay with Al. I mean, I think that he’s kind of proven that he’s okay with just – just contributing to winning and whether he gets talked about or not,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said of his veteran forward on Tuesday.
That’s quite the statement from the C’s coach, and is certainly warranted. But now Horford has to go from shutting down a guy referred to as a unicorn to trying to shut down a guy referred to as a freak.
For the second time in this young season, the Celtics will look to contain Giannis Antetokounmpo when they visit Milwaukee on Thursday night. That proved to be an impossible task a week ago when the Greek Freak looked like a dump truck going through drywall, getting into the paint whenever he wanted and dropping 37 points in Boston’s home opener en route to a 108-100 Bucks win.
The Celtics aren’t alone in that department, as three other teams have tried to slow down Antetokounmpo this season and all have failed. He shot 59 percent in Boston, hitting 13 of his 22 shots, and what’s scary is that’s been his worst shooting night of the year so far. He’s hitting a ridiculous 66 percent of his shots in Milwaukee’s first four games. Antetokounmpo still can’t shoot threes, but isn’t even trying to make that part of his arsenal, attempting just six so far this season.
He leads the NBA with 36 points per game thanks to his 6-foot-11, 222-pound frame and opposing defense’s inability to keep him out of the restricted zone. His Kareem-like offense, along with the 11 rebounds and five assists he’s averaging, has vaulted Antetokounmpo into the early MVP talk. If he can continue to have his way down low, where he’s scoring 26.5 of his points per game, that chatter won’t subside anytime soon.
The issue is there really isn’t much a defense — any defense — can do about it. The Celtics tossed a bevy of defenders at Antetokounmpo and nothing worked. Jaylen Brown was first to receive the assignment, followed by wiry rookie Jayson Tatum, who gave it a whirl when Brown was in foul trouble early in the first half. The duo tried to join forces to keep him out of the paint for a stretch, which proved to be unsuccessful as well. Brown really couldn’t do much with Antetokounmpo trucking his way under the basket whenever he had the ball, and fouled out with 1:48 left after a bruising effort.
Horford also got some defensive looks on Antetokounmpo, and had more success than others. That success was a block from behind to end the first half, after the forward blew by him with ease. Otherwise, Antetokounmpo had his way no matter who was in his face — or left in his wake.
Antetokounmpo is on a different level than Porzingis, and the rest of the NBA for that matter, but the Celtics will need Horford to give another stellar defensive effort on Thursday night if they want any hope of containing the Greek Freak. Whether that’s by way of help when he blows by his defender or Horford banging with him before he gets into the paint and forcing him to take a jumper or find an open teammate, Boston will need their elder statesman to assert himself on the defensive end again.
“Shutting down” Antetokounmpo isn’t a reality, at least not with him during this current tear to start the season. The Celtics can only hope to contain him, and it’s going to take a full team effort to do so.
On a night they’ll play on a throwback MECCA floor, Boston will need to employ an old school approach with the 22-year-old. Get physical, make everything difficult, and force him to take jumpers. Whether it’s Brown, Tatum, Horford or Aron Baynes, they’re going to have to keep him from getting to the paint with such ease.
That still probably won’t be enough to keep him from scoring 30, but it’s their only real hope at getting a win on Thursday night.