Every morning, we compile the links of the day and dump them here… highlighting the big story line. Because there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a good morning dump.
Horford is skilled, athletic and strong enough to punish smaller defenders. The Celtics haven’t been going to him as much, but against teams like the Bucks, he presents an intriguing opportunity for easy baskets with a combination of drop steps and fade aways. The big man’s hyper-efficient 27-point, 11-for-14 line led the way and showed the potential of his pairing with Irving.
For those keeping track: In three consecutive games, Horford has been tasked with the most difficult defensive matchup. Against Philadelphia, he guarded Ben Simmons. He shut down Kristaps Porzingis against New York. On Thursday, he drew the Giannis Antetokounmpo assignment, and once again, Horford shined.
The biggest reason the Celtics wanted Horford on Antetokounmpo was to match the star’s strength and add some height and length. That combination stymied Antetokounmpo in the half-court at times, just enough to keep him to a much more manageable 28 points on 10-for-21 shooting. Giannis is still pretty unstoppable, especially when he gets into transition, but the Celtics found some answers for him in Milwaukee.
First the big man set up shop in the left corner and hit a pair of open 3-pointers. Then, after coming out for a break, he and Irving were re-inserted with half a second left to execute an inbounds play. With no time to catch and go back up with a shot, Irving lofted the ball to Horford near the rim, and the latter tossed it back through the strings in one motion.
It came to light this week that one of the sports talkers on NBC Sports Boston, which carries Celtics games, has been referring to Horford as “Average Al.” You know, because he was signed as a big-money free agent but he doesn’t put up 20 and 10 every night.
It’s been said that if you don’t understand that Horford’s contributions go beyond just the raw numbers, then you don’t understand basketball. But, clearly, a lot of people don’t, because we’re in year two of Big Al and the “average” narrative persists.
Let’s hope, for one day, that last night’s performance will shut up the haters. Horford was elite on both ends of the court, not just making four threes and tying his Celtics career high with 27 points, but doing it on near-perfect shooting while adding nine rebounds and four assists.
Even with all that, Horford’s defense was probably more vital to the win in Milwaukee. He was the key to holding Giannis in check. The Greek was visibly frustrated in the fourth quarter as he finished eight points short of his league-leading scoring average (and that included two essentially meaningless three-pointers during the final minutes when the Cs were running out the clock).
If the Celtics are going to get anywhere this season without Gordon Hayward, they will need Horford and Kyrie Irving to be great every night. Like this:
The “Average Al” slights may never go away, because narratives drive clicks and ratings, but if the Cs keep winning, most of us will know why.
Related: Globe – Al Horford finding comfort zone playing center | ESPN Boston – Al Horford’s dominant performance on both ends of the floor leads Celtics
On Page 2: Kyrie and the other guys
Despite averaging 20 points and six assists in the first four games, Kyrie was supposedly struggling. (Another sports-talk narrative based largely on his shooting percentage being down.) But last night he dropped 24 (on 10-18 shooting) with seven dimes, and did it while showing off his famous handles.
The sudden loss of Hayward has probably affected Irving more than anyone else. Defenses have been able to key on him and run double teams at him repeatedly. But the eye test last night said that Kyrie is getting more comfortable and finding more ways to create shots for himself and his teammates.
Speaking of teammates, there were so many contributors to the win at the Mecca.
Aron Baynes: 12 points, seven boards, plus-12, and the toughness to prevent Giannis from finishing history’s most hellacious dunk.
Jaylen Brown: Couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean from the pier, but grabbed a career-high nine rebounds.
Jayson Tatum: Bounced back from a slow first half to finish with 12 points and plus-8. His smooth driving shot in fourth quarter looked like something from a five-year veteran, not a 19-year-old.
The rookie didn’t even score a point, missing both of his two shot attempts, but he was key to the Celtics’ victory. That’s because he contributed in a big way on the defensive end, providing some key stops in the fourth quarter when the Celtics made their game-changing run. And they weren’t just any stops — they were stops against Giannis Antetokounmpo, arguably the early favorite to win MVP after his incredible start.
“It’s great,” Ojeleye said about defending the Greek Freak. “You always want to go up against the best and know you can play against them.”
After missing two games with ankle troubles, Smart typically took some terrible shots and too many threes. Yet, he helped the Celtics turn the game around in the third quarter. He entered with Boston down seven, swished two straight triples, and was on the court for 16 of the last 17 minutes, making winning plays.
“I’ve really got to give all the credit to Marcus Smart,” said Horford. “He just sees the game in ways that a lot of times we don’t even see it, and he recognized that my guy was kind of falling asleep on the weak side. So just told me, ‘Hey, I’m going to screen for you, and just run off and shoot the corner 3.’ You know, he got me open there on back-to-back 3’s, and I felt like that was a big turning point in the game.”
MassLive – Kyrie Irving enjoyed Milwaukee Bucks’ throwback court after all | Marcus Smart had some words for a Milwaukee Bucks rookie during Boston Celtics’ win | Kyrie Irving, Al Horford lead Boston Celtics past Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks, 96-89
And, finally: Highlights of the night
There were many moments of offensive brilliance last night from Kyrie, but this defensive gem was just as good.
Enjoy some Celtics star power.
The Rest of the Links: