Isaiah Thomas is having one of the greatest scoring seasons in Celtics history. He does not consider it coincidental that Al Horford has been on the floor for most of his biggest runs.
“He’s been really important to my success,” the Celtics guard said after yesterday’s practice. “I remember earlier in the year he told me like I’m here to make things easier for you. You’re gonna lead this team and I’m gonna make things as easy as possible. And he meant that. He’s been exactly what he said since Day 1. He’s meant a lot to me.”
Now weigh that comment against the most prevalent critique of Horford and his max-level contract. He doesn’t score enough. He doesn’t rebound enough. Indeed, the subtler parts of the game should not be the main part of a “max” player’s game.
But for people like Thomas and Celtics coach Brad Stevens, those criticisms are missing the point. Horford’s impact can be felt in things like greater flow in the offensive end, and a significantly more versatile defense.
This is what Stevens and Thomas saw when Horford’s Hawks eliminated them in six first-round games last spring.
“I remember him doing all the little things,” Thomas said. “When we were watching film and seeing what they were doing well against us, he was in every play, offensively, defensively he was making plays. One thing that stood (out) the most was how good he is of a contester, how he contests shots every time, so I’m just glad he’s on our team now.”
Stevens saw something else — a player who consistently threw a wet towel on the Celtics’ efforts at transition.
“I remember how active he was defensively. In transition, when we were trying to beat them down the floor, he was at the free throw line with his arms out the whole series,” said the Celtics coach. “The way they transitioned both ways last year hurt us, and he was a big part of that.”
Those who want Horford to take on a bigger scoring role probably will tear their hair out over this: Stevens enters the playoffs with complete, almost unquestioning, faith on whatever decision Horford makes.
“He’ll make the right basketball play,” said the Celtics coach. “The right basketball play may not be scoring. It may be making the extra pass, it may be hitting the cutter, it may be setting the screen. He’ll make the right basketball play and that’s a lot more important than forcing a scoring idea, in my opinion.”
Stevens considers Horford’s instinct for the right play as the ultimate sign of NBA maturity.
“We always talk about, there’s a point and time in people’s careers where you really become aware of what you do best and how you impact winning and add value to your team,” said Stevens. “A lot of guys probably don’t find that as early in their careers because it’s trying to survive. But he’s really comfortable in who he is. I think that probably gives you a great deal of peace when you’re on the floor, knowing what you do best and sticking to those things.”
Upon joining the C’s, Horford identified his responsibility as doing everything possible to elevate Thomas’ game, not his own scoring.
“I just think that it was important for him to know that one of the big reasons I was coming here was because of him and the potential I saw in him as a player,” said Horford, who was first recruited by Thomas during the 2016 All-Star break. “Obviously, it’s about the team but he’s a big part of what we do. I just wanted to make sure that I let him know that I was going to try to help him as best as I could to make the game easy for him, make the game easy for our team and just help us win games. That’s what you want to do, you want to help come and win, and be in positions to do some special things.
“Not only me but our bigs, our job is to get him open and make sure he’s in position to be successful,” he said. “Also, he’s going to have to read the defense as well, because in the playoffs the intensity changes. He has to keep playing his game the same way, but also recognize when he is being doubled or when he needs to make the extra pass. He’ll figure it out, but for the bigs, we have to get him open. Anytime that I see him on the perimeter and see an easy shot, we’ll want to get it to him, to Avery (Bradley), to our guys to get them feeling good about getting open looks.”
Even if Horford’s own numbers stay under the radar, as maddening as that can seem.