Injuries and inconsistent lineups have been a big part of the Celtics’ playoff run this year. The team has been forced to juggle its starting five, especially recently.
Through 15 games, the Celtics have used five different starting lineups. So far in the Eastern Conference Finals, they’ve yet to play a single game with their full rotation available. Center Robert Williams has only played in eight games this postseason due to a knee issue, and guard Marcus Smart missed his third game Monday night with a foot injury.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have been available throughout the playoffs, which certainly helps keeps things running. However, especially in the Eastern Conference Finals, they’ve been inconsistent at times. For instance, Tatum had a 10-point, six-turnover game in Game 3 before bouncing back with 31 points in Game 4.
While he hasn’t quite been a star on the level of those two, forward Al Horford has really been a steadying presence for the Celtics throughout these playoffs. That’s about as unlikely a storyline as any we’ve seen from the Celtics this year, given the expectations for Horford coming into the season.
Coming off of a season in Oklahoma City where he only played 28 games and was shut down in late March, the Celtics’ plan was to manage Horford’s playing time to have him be able to contribute more late in the season. They followed through with that plan, as Horford played in 69 games and averaged 29.1 minutes per game. At times, the team specifically limited him in back-to-back or two-in-three scheduling situations.
Fast forward to the playoffs, where the schedule becomes much more condensed. The Celtics have played 15 games in the last 36 days. Taking out the long breaks between Rounds 1 and 2 and the extended layoff between Games 2 and 3 of the Bucks series, they’ve played nine games in the last 17 days including Monday. Despite that grueling schedule, the 35-year-old Horford has missed just one game this entire postseason, which came when he was in the league’s health & safety protocols.
The boost Horford has given the team has been especially convenient given the amount of time Robert Williams has missed, given the two play similar positions. Ime Udoka has kept the rotations as tight as possible during the postseason, and Horford’s ability to play extended minutes has limited the number of times the team has had to give extensive minutes to an extra big man off the bench.
Horford hasn’t just been playing, but he’s been a central part of the Celtics success. Compared to his 29.1 minutes per game in the regular season, he’s up to 36.4 minutes per game in the playoffs. In those minutes, he’s nearly averaging a double-double with 12.7 points and 9.5 rebounds per contest. He’s shooting 54 percent from the field, and 49 percent from three.
That trend continued Monday night, when the Celtics picked up a 102-82 win to tie the series at 2-2 and avoid an elimination game in Miami. Although Horford didn’t reach the top of the scoring column (he finished with five points on 1-of-2 shooting) he was incredibly efficient elsewhere. He had a game-high 13 rebounds and finished with four blocks. His plus-33 rating was the second-highest on the Celtics, behind only Jayson Tatum.
When Horford returned from health & safety protocols at the start of this series, Udoka referred to him as a “calming presence.” That feels like as apt a description as any for what Horford has provided the Celtics during this playoff run.
With Robert Williams’ status seemingly game-to-game from here on out, the Celtics will likely need to continue to lean on Horford as this run continues. Next up is a pivotal Game 5 in Miami Wednesday night. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. on 98.5 The Sports Hub and the 98.5 The Sports Hub Celtics Radio Network leading up to tip-off at 8:30.