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BOSTON – It’s going to take extraordinary levels of physical and mental toughness from the Boston Celtics to get past two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks in the second round.
This is where Al Horford’s experience and guidance comes into play.
The Celtics have leaned on their eldest teammate all season and, in this series, his leadership on and off the court will be magnified, because he is built for a matchup like this.
From an on-court perspective, Horford’s defensive versatility will be relied upon as the Celtics try to slow down one of the most feared players in the world. Horford already did so during his lone matchup of the season with Antetkoummpo on Dec. 13, when he guarded the Greek Freak on 36 possessions while giving up only eight points in a 117-103 Celtics win.
“That versatility that he’s shown all year is the benefit against a guy like Antetokounmpo,” Celtics head coach Ime Udoka said Thursday afternoon, roughly 48 hours before Game 1 tip-off at TD Garden. “Obviously, (Antetokounmpo) plays perimeter base, but can post up as well, and that's why Al’s been so valuable to us this year. Being able to guard both, he has the size to take the hits and you gotta have some physicality there. So that's the big thing, obviously, with Al over the last few years.”
Udoka also recalls Horford defending Antetokounmpo “extremely well” when the two of them were with the Philadelphia 76ers two seasons ago. Since then, however, the 35-year-old’s defensive impact seems to have only grown.
“We've talked about how excited he was to come back to Boston,” said Udoka, “came in great shape and has been one of our most consistent guys throughout the year. So age-wise, I think he's taking a lot of pride in coming back this year, taking on the challenge and like we say with our whole team, being a very good defensive unit in general, and Al allows us to do that with his versatility. So he's almost tailor-made for a guy like Giannis.”
Obviously, Horford won’t be taking on Antetokounmpo alone; his teammates will all be helping with such a challenge. But in doing so, they’ll be relying on his wisdom, which is where his experience and leadership becomes invaluable.
Jayson Tatum, being Antetokounmpo’s superstar counterpart, will depend on Horford’s guidance in this situation, just as he has done throughout his career.
“Al is somebody I talk to all the time, dating back to my first year, a veteran guy, somebody I’ve seen play since I was in elementary school,” said Tatum. “I’ve just got a great deal of respect for Al, the things he’s accomplished and just how he goes about his business and one of the best teammates I’ve had. So I’m very fortunate to have been on the same team as him for three years now.”
Of course, Horford’s postsason experience dates well beyond the few years he’s spent in Boston. He’s been to the playoffs in 14 of his 15 NBA seasons, dating all the way back to his 2008 first-round exit with the Hawks against the last Celtics championship team.
“Al’s got 15 years of doing this, and doing it at a high level,” said Marcus Smart. “We appreciate everything Al brings to the table, his wisdom, his play, his leadership, and his overall personality of who he is. He cares about everybody; very selfless. When you have someone like that, it’s very contagious and everybody needs to be that guy.”
Horford was also that guy during the first round against the Brooklyn Nets, stepping up and delivering 13.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, while shooting a team-high 60.0 percent from 3-point range during Boston's four-game sweep.
Horford says he came out of that series feeling great and ready to go for the next one, which is good news for the Celtics, because they will depend on his versatility, physicality and leadership, as they attempt to take down the defending champs.