Why Al Horford’s Defense Could Determine Celtics’ Success Vs. Sixers

by NESN Staff

April 30, 2018

If you thought Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks presented matchup problems, wait until you see the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Sixers roll into TD Garden on Monday led by two “unicorns” — rangy point guard Ben Simmons and big man extraordinaire Joel Embiid — who will look to wreak havoc in their second-round NBA playoff series against the Boston Celtics.

Simmons especially is a nightmare for defenses: a 6-foot-10 “point guard” who can post you up or blow by you on the fast break. But the Celtics have their own defensive Swiss army knife in Al Horford, who will get the first crack at defending Simmons on Monday night.

“Yeah, (Horford) guarded him every game we played. Sure,” head coach Brad Stevens told reporters at the Celtics’ practice facility, via ESPN’s Chris Forsberg. “He’ll guard him, but everyone else will too.”

A power forward defending a point guard doesn’t seem like a great idea, but Horford actually did a bang-up job on Simmons during the teams’ four meetings this season: Simmons’ 93.0 offensive rating against Boston was his fourth-worst versus any NBA team.

In fact, Horford admirably defended both Simmons and Embiid this season, a testament to his incredible versatility on that end of the floor.

As Stevens noted, guarding Simmons will be a team effort. Rookie Semi Ojeyele could see time defending Simmons after his solid performance against Antetokounmpo in the first round, especially if Jaylen Brown misses time with his hamstring injury. Expect Stevens to unleash Marcus Smart on Simmons, as well.

Yet Horford may be Boston’s most effective option against Simmons, whose one fatal flaw is his outside shot: The Rookie of the Year favorite made exactly zero 3-pointers this season on 11 attempts. Horford has the length to challenge Simmons at the rim and the strength to keep him out of the paint during halfcourt sets.

Of course, Horford only can guard one player at a time, meaning Aron Baynes, Greg Monroe or Marcus Morris could be tasked with stopping the 7-foot Embiid. That becomes a more difficult task with sharpshooters like J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli in the mix.

“They put you in a bind,” Stevens added. “They’ve got two guys in Simmons and Embiid that demand a ton of attention. The problem is, they’ve got some of the best 3-point shooters in the world, and if you give too much attention, you’re in trouble.”

Simmons is the engine that makes Philly run, though, and whether Horford can slow him down could determine the outcome of this series.

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