Celtics forward Al Horford was still learning how to become an elite defender when he played for the University of Florida. Larry Shyatt, who coached the Gators’ big men, would tell Horford he should always have his arms out and hands up, because it took up space and made it appear that he was always ready to defend.
Horford carried that advice with him as he helped Florida win back-to-back national titles, and it continues to serve him well now. In the final seconds of the Celtics’ game against the Kings on Friday night, Sacramento trailed by 3 points and had a chance to tie.
The inbounds pass went to DeMarcus Cousins, who has evolved into a respectable 3-point shooter. Horford met him beyond the right arc, and his arms were out and his hands were up. He probed without hacking and maintained his ground, swinging both arms in the air to be enough of a nuisance.
Cousins leapt and flailed his arms, either feeling or anticipating contact, but by that point Horford already had knocked the shot away before recovering it, helping put the final stamp on the Celtics’ 97-92 win.
“I know he tried to draw something there,” Horford said of Cousins, “but I just stayed solid and did not let him get a shot off.”
After the Celtics lost at home to the Pistons on Wednesday, the first thing coach Brad Stevens noticed was that Horford had attempted just five shots. It was partly because Detroit had chosen to constantly double-team him, but the Celtics knew they needed to do more to free him, too.
On Friday he faced few double teams, and Sacramento tended to sag back on pick-and-rolls, and Horford made them pay for both decisions. He made 10 of 18 shots overall and 4 of 7 3-pointers, finishing with a season-high 26 points, 8 rebounds and 6 blocks.
“He wanted to come out and be aggressive,” Celtics forward Jae Crowder said. “We wanted to give him the ball, get him some touches early.”
Even though it is just early December, this felt like an important game for the Celtics. This season they already have lost to scuffling teams such as the Pelicans, Nuggets and Wizards, and a loss to the now 7-12 Kings would have dropped Boston’s home record to 4-5, hardly the mark of a team that has visions of reaching the Eastern Conference finals.
And although Boston was far from perfect, it did just enough, and at times looked more like the gritty bunch that closed out wins so effectively last season.
“We came out and imposed our will early, and that helped,” Crowder said. “We’ve got to keep that up.”
Before the game, Cousins was greeted with noticeable cheers by Celtics fans who would like to see him in green someday. He is on a short list of great players on meandering teams who seem like logical trade targets, and the crowd here let him know that this would be a welcome destination.
The big man had moments of dominance, overpowering the smaller Celtics inside, but he also scuffled on offense, going 10 for 26 from the field to finish with 26 points.
“If we want to change this whole thing around,” Cousins said, “then we have to hold ourselves accountable and take responsibility for our effort.”
Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas has made no secret of his desire for more minutes, particularly in the critical stages of a game. On Wednesday, even though the Celtics played well early in the fourth quarter while he was out, the All-Star sat for the first six minutes of the period before reentering the game, which Boston lost.
On Friday, Sacramento held a 76-74 lead with 8:30 left when Stevens called timeout and put Thomas back into the game. The Celtics immediately unspooled a 10-0 run.
“We’ve had player-coach talks, how he feels and how I feel, and that’s the relationship we have,” Thomas said. “We can talk to each other at any point in time, and he changed [the substitutions] up today a little bit.”
After Thomas reentered the game early in the fourth, Horford trailed a break and blocked a Rudy Gay 3-pointer before scoring at the other end. Moments later he swatted Willie Cauley-Stein’s shot, leading to a Jonas Jerebko layup.
Terry Rozier then came up with a steal and Kelly Olynyk put back his missed layup with 7:09 left, making it 80-76. On that play, Cousins took an inadvertent shot to the face at midcourt from teammate Ty Lawson. Blood pooled under his eye and he had to leave the game. Sacramento’s training staff wanted to give Cousins stitches, but he told them that would take too long and instructed them to just glue it shut and tend to him later.
The Celtics led, 84-76, by the time Cousins returned, and the Kings quickly pulled back within 84-81. But Horford hit one 3-pointer from the left arc with 3:43 left and then added another from the same spot at the 1:15 mark, stretching Boston’s lead to 93-87.
Sacramento had one final chance while trailing by 3 points with 15 seconds left, but Horford gave Cousins no room to operate.
“The one thing about Al is he’s always in a stance,” Stevens said. “His arms are always long.”
Just like his old college coach taught him.