Pregame Post-Ups: Horford Helping Thomas Reach New Heights

Tuesday, January 10 - Celtics at Raptors

Pregame – Horford Helping Thomas Reach New Heights

TORONTO – Isaiah Thomas deserves credit for his growth as a player over the last 12 months. However, his hard work isn’t the only reason he has become the Eastern Conference’s leading scorer.

Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens said over and over this summer that Al Horford would seamlessly fit into Boston’s system. Those claims have proven to be accurate. But Horford has also fit in seamlessly teaming with Thomas in Boston’s pick-and-roll.

Horford is the perfect complement to Thomas in the NBA’s premier play. The big man does everything the Celtics need from their starting center. He’s a shooter who has made the fifth-most 3s on the team this season. He’s a passer who leads all NBA centers in assists per game with an average of 5.0. And what flies under the radar, yet drastically affects Thomas’ game, is Horford’s screen-setting abilities.

“He’s good at knowing when to slip out. He’s good at knowing when to screen,” Brad Stevens said ahead of Tuesday’s matchup with the Raptors in Toronto. “That’s critical when you’re playing against different positions … He’s just good at reading that because he’s smart and he’s had a lot of years doing it.”

And that, combined with all of Horford’s other skills, is something Thomas didn’t have by his side prior to this season.

The combination of Horford’s skill set and Thomas’ skill is oftentimes unguardable. In past seasons, opponents did not respect Jared Sullinger’s skill set as much as they respect Horford’s, and as a result, they had an easier time defending Boston’s pick-and-rolls. Now those opponents are put into a bind every time Horford sets a screen for Thomas, and that has helped the 5-foot-9 point guard reach a new level of play.

“I think Al is just opening up the court a little bit more for Isaiah,” said Terry Rozier, who has had a front-row seat to watch Thomas’ evolution over the last two seasons. “IT’s really good at working with any space he’s got – he’s going to make the game how he wants to make it, no matter if it’s with a lot of room or a little room, he’s just going to be aggressive – but I think just Al setting those screens and having a lot of attention on him knowing that he can knock down the three-ball and things like that, I feel like he just spaces the floor a little bit more for our team and just gives IT room to work.”

And Thomas has taken full advantage. His drives-per-game average has risen to a league-high 13.8 this season, up 16.9 percent from last season’s average of 11.8 per game. That spike, along with Thomas’ increased scoring, is in large part due to the guard’s personal improvements. But there’s no doubt that Horford has also played a role in IT’s growth.

Thomas was an All-Star last season playing alongside Sullinger and the rest of Boston’s bigs. This season, while playing more than 26 minutes a night alongside Horford, IT’s name is in the MVP conversation. And that’s no coincidence.

- Marc D'Amico

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