Al Horford's Wall-To-Wall Game 1 Sets Tone For Celtics-Wizards

How one defensive rotation can affect an entire series and the Celtics and Wizards must adjust moving forward.
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It took all of 17 minutes for a single, over-aggressive closeout to shift the dynamic of an entire playoff series. One win for Boston—or one loss for Washington—is not a verdict in itself. Yet when Al Horford’s foot slid under Markieff Morris with 7:18 remaining in the second quarter, the visiting Wizards held a 45-42 lead and needed desperately to respond to a swelling Celtics run. Morris’ ankle sprain rendered them unable. 

Some teams are deeper than others, but the truth of the NBA is that every playoff team is fragile. Losing a star can be a season’s death sentence. Any injury to a core a player, however, can compromise the kind of adjustment playoff basketball requires. The only way to contain a motion-oriented offense like Boston’s is to lean on players like Morris (and Otto Porter) to make smart choices on the weak side. Lose Morris and that responsibility now falls to some less qualified player. Bump up that player’s minutes and Washington, whose bench is already a mess, has to make do with the next layer of overstretch. So long as Morris is sidelined, the Wizards will be playing short two of its three best bigs. There is no way to use Morris as a small-ball five to change the feel of a game. There is no option to replace Gortat with a defensive counterpoint like Ian Mahinmi. There is one way for the Wizards to play, and that one way allowed the Celtics to get to almost any spot of their choosing.

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Morris has already made clear that he intends to play in Game 2. He also noted that this was the worst ankle sprain he had ever experienced—a clarifying remark that could mean even his presence on the floor going forward will not be near enough. A hobbled, pained Markieff Morris might not do the Wizards much good. Washington needs his activity. It relies on his complete engagement. There is value in his strength and mobility, but only if his ankle allows him to move stably. Anything less could be a meaningful tax on an already inconsistent player, nudging him further away from the kind of regular contribution the Wizards need.

A few more impressions from Boston’s 123-111 win:

• Al Horford will have his fingerprints all over this series. Run back the tape on any possession where the Celtics seemed to make something from nothing and odds are good that Horford was right in the middle of it. His playmaking ability alleviates pressure on Isaiah Thomas and lessens the Celtics’ reliance on some of their less natural playmakers. Boston doesn’t necessarily want Marcus Smart running a pick-and-roll from beginning to end. It wants the pass off to Horford in the lane, which in itself springs open all sorts of options. Thomas can gather momentum before ever touching the ball because Horford can be entrusted to work with it. A player who can fulfill that kind of role while helping contain on defense, stretching the floor with his shooting, and—at least in Game 1—competing on the glass is a series-defining presence. Horford’s is a comprehensive value. Scoring 21 points on 10-of-13 shooting won’t be in the cards every night, but expect Horford to do important work as this series’ undercurrent.

• Washington scored well enough to win. Herein lies the problem. The Wizards finished this game with an effective field goal percentage of 56.3%, equal to Golden State’s league-leading mark in the regular season; John Wall and Bradley Beal combined for 47 points, 20 assists, five made three-pointers, and 18-of-39 shooting overall; most every role player knocked down shots; Washington matched Boston board for board; and despite Wall’s eight turnovers, the team’s turnover percentage overall registered at what would have been a top-five level. A team that had all of that going for it still coughed up a 17-point lead to ultimately lose by 12. MarcinGortat became a pick-and-roll target. All sorts of Wizards were getting tangled and lost while defending off-ball action. There’s a lot to clean up and few players worth cycling in to accept a different kind of defensive role.

• Can any Wizard guard Isaiah Thomas? Early as it is to say, the first returns suggest not. Wall, Beal, and Kelly Oubre all had their shot in Game 1, but none could do much to bother him. On isolated possessions, Beal was able to fight his way through screens to stay with Thomas or Oubre was able to complicate the proceedings with his length. None of it meant a damn thing in the aggregate, as Thomas got to the free throw line (seven attempts in 38 minutes), racked up threes (five makes in 11 tries), drove the lane to manipulate the defense (nine assists to two turnovers), and piled up points (33 for the night). That is not the kind of performance the Wizards can just endure.

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• Boston continues to pursue the right kinds of three-point attempts. Some of the variance in the Celtics’ game-to-game performance stems from their best mechanism for secondary offense. Horford will never be a fill-it-up scorer. That leaves non-creators like Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder to help fill in however they can, beginning with their spot-up work on the wings. Running Thomas around staggered screens and into a subsequent pick-and-roll leaves a defense dizzy. Opponents stumble over themselves to account for Thomas and Horford, which allows Boston’s shooters and cutters to slide into place. That basic approach has made the Celtics the most prolific three-point shooting team in these playoffs, as reinforced by their 39 attempts (and 19 makes) in Game 1. Any poor shooting night—like those to start Boston’s first-round series against Chicago—can leave the Celtics vulnerable. When played to the odds, however, the Celtics do well just by generating that many catch-and-shoot attempts.