“Yah, we don’t mention him [Al Horford] because he loses to LeBron religiously. He’s like 0-15 or 0-16 or whatever the case may be, that’s all I’m sayin’….”
— Stephen A. Smith
“Al Horford plays the right way every time down — offensively and defensively.”
— Kevin Durant
When people started buzzing about tonight’s Warriors-Celtics matchup, they mostly focused on things like Kyrie Irving’s new mask, or his summer “divorce” from LeBron James. Or the performance of young Celtic greyhounds like Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier. Or two of the best three coaches in the NBA playing live chess. (Don’t “@” us, Spurs fans. We said “two of the best three.”)
But lower down on the playbill, we come to Draymond Green vs. Al Horford.
Discerning basketball fans know how critical this matchup may be. For all the talk of the demise of the big man in the NBA, the fact is, the big man hasn’t left. In fact he’s just become faster, longer, and more agile, and developed a better shooting range.
Of course, in an age of ubiquitous switches and stretch bigs, even a “matchup” (by formal position) isn’t going to look like it used to. This isn’t Shaq vs. Dwight Howard. And yet, it is a confrontation of sorts.
Green is already widely known and highly regarded as one of the top 10 players in the league, and certainly one of the 2-3 best at his position. Al Horford — and we are talking fan/journalist perception here — well, as Borat put it, “not so much.”
This despite his ranking in the NBA’s top 10 in true shooting percentage (4th), rebounding per 48 minutes, win shares per 48 minutes (6th), box score plus-minus (7th), and contested shots per game (8th).
All while acting as the recognized quarterback of the top-ranked defense in the NBA.
“The Big Phlegmatic”
Indeed, Al Horford just might be the Rodney Dangerfield of the Celtics and, perhaps, the NBA — he gets no respect. (Not even from Stephen A. Smith, quoted above, who, single-handedly, has caused the stock price of the word disssss-respect to more than quadruple over the last decade.) One local radio station has revived a campaign to label him as “Average Al.”
Quietly, however, Horford has become one of the top-ranked power forward, floor-stretching, defense-leading big men.
We mean that literally. Horford’s quiet, steady, even-keeled demeanor has endeared him to most fans, and all of his teammates, and many around the league.
If Shaq were handing out nicknames, Horford would probably be The Big Phlegmatic or The Fundamental. If Horford were an actor, then, sorry — he wouldn’t be Denzel. More like Jimmy Stewart. Okay, if Al Horford were a politician, he just might be President Obama, though his demeanor and soft tenor voice includes a dash of Ronald Reagan.
Baseball player? That one’s obvious: #42…..
Draymond, by contrast, is an instigator, a trash talker, and a flamboyant flash player…. Han Solo. Heck, he’s approaching one-name status, like Cher, Madonna, Kanye.
On the court: Al vs. Draymond
Looking at their careers, courtesy of LandOfBasketball.com, there’s less disparity in “counting numbers” than we expected, though Horford has been in the league longer, and Draymond rode the pine early in his time at Golden State.
The biggest disparity is in postseasn series won and rings. Horford, however, may have turned a corner in last year’s playoffs. His true shooting percentage of .688 was 6th in the NBA (qualified players.) Horford’s 2.1 win shares placed him in the top ten, not far below Green’s 2.4, and his assist percentage (25.9) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.94) bested some point guards.
In their only head-to-head matchup since Horford became a Celtic, The Big Phlegmatic held his own against Draymond — pretty even if you go by box-score counting stats. He shot 4-8, scored 10 points, dished out 6 assists, grabbed 6 rebounds, and turned the ball over once. Draymond scored 13, but on 6 of 15 shooting against some excellent contests, with 8 rebounds, 2 assists, and 3 turnovers.
And advanced-stat guy would have to marvel at the comparative ORtg and DRtg numbers. Horford: ORtg 126, DRtg 91. Green: ORtg 76 (not a typo), DRtg 96. (Small sample size alert. For the same game, Kelly Olynyk had an ORtg of 158.)
One other key factoid from that night: the Celtics won, 99-86, in Oracle.
(#42 missed the first Celtics-Warriors game last season with a concussion, and the Celtics missed him. Boston was 7-7 last year without Horford out of the lineup, compared to 46-22 with him.)
In previous matchups from 2014 to 2016, with Horford playing some at center and some at power forward, his Hawks had trouble with the Warriors (who didn’t?). The Hawks took one out of four, and Horford had to spend much of his time banging with Andrew Bogut. Still, their counting stats give only a slight edge to Draymond — and the efficiency and advanced stats lean Horford.
The Kyrie factor
A couple new factors tonight that may make a difference.
One is Kyrie Irving. As good as the chemistry was between Al and Isaiah Thomas, Irving seems to have taken it even a notch better. Suddenly Al Horford is in the top 25 in dunks, and in the top 20 in dunks per game (14 total in 13 games). Last year, he was 75th in the league, with a total of 41 dunks.
And then there’s the physical presence of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum and their seemingly endless arms, not to mention Aaron Baynes and Marcus Morris providing muscle. When Draymond and Horford do match up during Warriors possessions, #42 won’t have to worry quite as much about covering for others.
Just don’t expect any trash-talking or kicks in the man region — at least, not from Al Horford. He’ll be too focused on the scoreboard.
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