MINNEAPOLIS — There was a collective sigh of relief in the Celtics’ locker room after Saturday night’s 94-92 win over the host Detroit Pistons. The cavalry had arrived — with Al Horford and Jae Crowder back after missing a combined 17 games — after the Celtics had scrambled for three weeks.
Horford, who had missed nine games because of a concussion, not only scored the winning basket then blocked a shot to seal the win, he gave his teammates a sense of security that they are now whole. Horford had shown his impact with a stellar preseason, as the Celtics shut down opponents defensively while the ball moved offensively.
Crowder, who had missed eight games because of an ankle injury, gives the Celtics defensive grit. His return wasn’t as rousing as Horford’s, but he did finish plus-3 in 27 minutes against the Pistons.
The Celtics now have a full squad after 13 games and have aspirations to fulfill their lofty expectations after a 7-6 start.
“Those two guys know how much they mean to this team, so it was great to have everybody back and they felt good about it, so hopefully we can get some momentum and get a couple of wins in a row,” said Isaiah Thomas. “We need both of those guys, bad. Not just on the defensive end, but offensively as well. They’re a little rusty because they’ve been out for a bit, but I don’t think anybody could tell.”
Horford’s presence was especially profound. Defensively, he is a stabilizer and rim protector. Offensively, he stretches the floor with his 3-point shooting.
“He makes a huge difference, even if he’s not scoring he’s defending,” Thomas said. “He’s making plays for others and just his presence out there makes the court more open for other guys to create and make plays. When you have more guys who can make plays and play-make on their own, it helps you.”
The lineup at the end of the game against the Pistons — Thomas, Horford, Crowder, Marcus Smart, and Avery Bradley — is one coach Brad Stevens may use more often. With Crowder, Bradley, Smart, and Horford elite defenders, it should be difficult for opposing teams to score down the stretch.
“We’ve got to get it going, but I think that’s a great lineup for us to end games,” Crowder said. “We can guard like we want to. We can rebound. We’ve just got to get better at it, but I think that’s a good lineup for us to move forward. It makes a world of a difference on both ends of the court.”
Crowder, like Thomas, feels Horford’s presence is key.
“It’s just not one-dimensional. He does a lot of stuff for us,” Crowder said. “He communicates very well. I notice it helps us so much, his communication on the court. It makes the game much easier for a lot of young guys and a lot of guys who are trying to figure it out still. That’s why you could play him in so many different lineups.”
For Horford, missing nine games because of a concussion was painful, both physically and mentally. He had missed significant time in past seasons with the Hawks because of torn pectoral muscles, but this injury was different. For a few weeks, Horford couldn’t withstand crowd noise or loud music. He would have setbacks, and there was a high level of uncertainty about his return until just a few days ago.
“For me, it was just when I felt right,” he said. “And the ultimate test for me was [Friday]. I had a really good workout. I was able to stay out and watch the whole game on the court. Once that happened, I knew I was ready. It didn’t matter who I was going against, I just needed to get back and play with the guys.”
The next step for the Celtics is improving chemistry and getting accustomed to the various lineups with Horford and Crowder.
“Being on the side like this, seeing the team have its ups and downs, really makes you lock in as a player and appreciate a lot more the process and playing and building, because we’re building something here,” Horford said. “I think there was a lot of good things. We still have to find ways to take pressure off Isaiah in any way that we can, and we all just have to keep working together. That’s what it’s all about, making the game easier for him, for everybody. We just have to keep moving the ball.
“I think our defense was good. I was very proud.”