Al Horford has always been known as a high-level defender, but the forward turned 35 in June. It was logical to believe that perhaps he would begin to regress a bit, or at least not be able to jump like he once did.
But so far this season, Horford has been an elite rim protector for Boston. He entered Monday’s game against the Bulls averaging 3.8 blocks, the most in the league, despite playing just 30.3 minutes per contest.
“I’ve always taken pride in defending,” said Horford, who had the only Celtics block (compared to eight for Chicago) in the ugly 128-114 loss. “That’s always been a staple of my game. And I feel like that kind of sets the tone for our group in general, that’s how we need to be. We need to take pride in defending and doing the dirty work. And understanding that, if we do that, we’ll be in a good position most nights to be able to win the game.”
Horford’s frontcourt mate, Robert Williams, is second in the NBA with 3.2 blocks per contest, giving Boston a fearsome frontline. Head coach Ime Udoka said the high block totals are often the result of strong help defense.
“We weren’t doing a great job early, so [Horford’s] a guy that’s pretty much been our best team defender, as well as switching and guarding guys on the perimeter,” head coach Ime Udoka said.
“So using his length, using his mind. Rob has been good as well, but a few games early in the season, we weren’t coming across helping. We’ve been night and day as far as that as a team. But [Horford]’s a veteran presence and he knows how to use his body. Last game with six blocks, obviously that was a huge number, but he’s affecting so many more shots and he’s coming across and rebounding. So, he’s been great this year.”
Sticking with the kids
The Celtics picked up the fourth-year options on wing Romeo Langford and forward Grant Williams, as well as third-year guards Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith, a league source confirmed. All of the moves were essentially formalities.
Langford, who will be paid $5.6 million next season, has been slowed by injuries throughout his first three years, but has shown promise as a high-level defender and has improved his once-wobbly jump shot. In his first three games this season, Langford averaged 6 points and three rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the 3-point line.
Williams, who will earn $4.3 million next year, is averaging 9.8 points per game this season and also shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc. The 6-foot-6-inch forward has shown value as a small-ball center in Boston’s more versatile lineups.
Pritchard broke his nose during the preseason, and so far his production and playing time have dipped a bit since his rookie year. He’s averaging 3.4 points and two assists. Nesmith, meanwhile, has mostly fallen out of the rotation. He’s played just 27 minutes and hasn’t scored.
All hands on deck again
The Celtics had their entire roster available for just the second time this season against the Bulls, as Marcus Smart and Robert Williams returned after being sidelined due to illnesses.
“It’s good to have everybody back,” Udoka said. “The continuity has been missed a little bit. To have the bodies back should take some stress off the guys who have been playing heavy minutes. Just in general we feel great with our depth. Our bench and the other guys are getting experience, and then we can throw our starters back in.”
Smart had 16 points, 4 steals, and a rebound in 33 minutes, while Williams played 24 (6 points), briefly departing with what he feared was a hip injury before returning. Only Enes Kanter and Jabari Parker didn’t make an appearance in the loss, with Nesmith, Juancho Hernangomez, and Bruno Fernando getting a minute of mop-up duty alongside Pritchard, who also played half the second quarter.