The Long Two: Al Horford’s ageless brilliance and defining MVP

Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, NBA

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Less than a month from his 36th birthday, a rejuvenated Al Horford has helped keep the Celtics alive against the Bucks. Plus: a note on the NBA’s MVP award.

The NBA playoffs have a way of producing unlikely heroes. In arduous battles where each team knows the other’s tendencies, anticipates its tactics and keys in on its stars, critical games — or even an entire series — can turn on ancillary players outperforming expectations and carving out an edge neither team counted on.

Al Horford — who turns 36 next month and has logged 39 minutes per game in five games against the Bucks — is the latest role player to step into the spotlight, having crawled out of the woodwork to completely change the complexion of one of the best second-round playoff bouts in recent memory.

Al Horford has been a difference-maker for the Boston Celtics

With Robert Williams missing Games 4 and 5 with left knee soreness, Horford has practically been Boston’s only available center, which has unlocked highly effective small lineups in which he acts as a floor-spacer, facilitator and defensive anchor. The 14-year veteran is averaging almost 17 points and 11 rebounds per game in the series, displaying an aggressive off-the-dribble game and connecting Boston’s offense as a passer — all while capably defending the best player in basketball.

Containing Giannis Antetokounmpo is no easy task, and even in a relatively inefficient series, the reigning Finals MVP has still amassed some gargantuan statistical lines. Still, Horford has been one of the very few Celtics that’s had any success slowing him down, which has allowed the Celtics to avoid double-teaming Giannis to stay home on other players.

Offensively, this was always going to be a series in which Horford would have his chances to shine. The Bucks’ now-notorious drop pick-and-roll coverage is designed to barricade the rim and keep teams off the foul line, and to their credit, Milwaukee has largely succeeded in keeping Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown out of the paint. The tradeoff of that approach, however, is that opponents generate heaps of open 3s against the Bucks, who have allowed the most above-the-break 3s in the NBA each of the last four seasons. Horford is exactly the kind of big man who can punish Milwaukee’s bigs for hanging back in the paint, and he has emerged as a vital counter to one of the best defensive schemes in the NBA.

Horford has shot 14-of-30 from 3 in the series (including 9-of-14 in Games 3 and 4) while stabilizing Boston’s offense with his versatile all-around game. His 3-point shooting not only gives the Celtics another reliable scoring option but pulls Milwaukee out of its comfortable defensive shell and neutralizes some of the Bucks’ historically great rim protection.

Through the first three games of this series, Milwaukee held Boston to a paltry 92.8 offensive rating in the halfcourt and just 56 percent shooting at the rim because Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez functionally put a lid on the basket while perimeter defenders flew around to shooting threats. By the end of Game 4, however, Giannis and Lopez began to pay Horford more attention beyond the arc, which opened up the paint and helped the Celtics post a 187 offensive rating in the fourth quarter on a scorching 97.4 percent true shooting.

With more space to work inside, Tatum and Brown found easier lanes to the basket, while Marcus Smart could comfortably bully Grayson Allen into easy floaters down the stretch. Horford himself even took advantage of Milwaukee’s more aggressive defense, attacking Antetokounmpo on a hard closeout for a vengeful dunk late in the fourth:

In Game 5, Horford affected the game more with his defense and playmaking than his scoring, anchoring four-guard lineups that spread the Bucks out and attacked the gaps in their defense. He recorded multiple one-on-one stops against Antetokounmpo while opportunistically picking his spots within the flow of the offense on the other end. The Bucks largely stayed in drop coverage, but the threat of Horford torching them from deep again forced slightly harder closeouts from Milwaukee’s bigs, which Horford attacked to put the defense in rotation and trigger passing sequences that led to open looks:

Against a defense as big and connected as Milwaukee’s, it’s imperative to move the ball quickly in the half-second windows the Bucks aren’t set. Horford is arguably at his best in those moments, instantaneously recognizing whether to shoot, drive or swing the ball the moment he catches it and reading the defense’s next step in real-time. That sort of subtle intelligence stretches small advantages into bigger ones, which is the only way to consistently generate halfcourt offense against the Bucks.

It almost feels unfair asking Horford, at this stage of his career, to do so much on both ends of the floor. Yet what he provides is essential to Boston’s success, and he has proven capable of everything the team has asked of him. Now standing on the brink of elimination, the Celtics will need another throwback performance from their rejuvenated center just to survive.

What does the MVP mean, anyway?

Earlier this week, the NBA announced that Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić was named the league’s Most Valuable Player for the second consecutive season, edging out finalists Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid. Naturally, this prompted strong reactions and heated exchanges across the internet, NBA and TV airwaves, as all things seem to do. I have no interest in relitigating the MVP race nearly a month after voters turned in their ballots, nor do I care to engage with bad-faith arguments about advanced stats and playoff performance that only serve to further polarize the conversation. Obviously, all three candidates had historically impeccable credentials and would have been worthy choices to win; somehow less obvious is the fact that only one player can actually win the award. (For whatever it’s worth, I would have voted for Jokić, then Giannis, then Embiid.)

Put aside whether you agree with Jokić winning MVP; what’s interesting about the noisy discourse is the vast range of interpretations of what the award even is. I personally believe Jokić was the league’s most valuable player because I think he had the greatest influence over his team’s on-court success during the regular season. Yet someone else might come to an entirely different yet equally valid conclusion based on an entirely different, equally valid interpretation of value, and much of the disagreement over who should or shouldn’t win various NBA awards exists because the two sides can’t agree on what they’re arguing about.

Some voters like the MVP to represent the story of the season — the player who best captured the NBA zeitgeist in that specific year. Others choose to reward team success by picking the best player on the best team, while some simply vote for who they believe to be the best player in the NBA. For some people, the number of games a player misses has significant bearing on his award eligibility, while others care only about how good players were when they did play. Many voters will insist that the MVP must come from a championship-caliber team; others look only at individual contributions. With no clear criteria for how they should vote, every definition is technically legitimate. (The same issue applies to a lesser degree with All-NBA, Defensive Player of the Year and the league’s other season awards.)

This seems to be the way the NBA wants the award to work, and maybe that’s how it should be; the more nebulous the criteria, the more room there is for interpretation and disagreement, which creates a more polarizing conversation and thus drums up more interest in the league and engagement with its media partners. And, for all the online squabbling about awards results, the voting body almost always makes a rational MVP choice. But with players’ contract sizes and long-term legacies at stake, there may be a need for more stringent criteria by which voters come to these decisions, and if we can’t agree on what “valuable” even means, we may never be able to have a healthy, intellectually honest discussion about which player was actually the “most valuable” in a given season.

What should that definition be? That question is best answered by smarter and more influential minds than mine, even if I feel quite strongly about what my own answer would be. The guidelines should be specific enough that players need to check most of the same boxes to qualify, yet broad enough to include room for different kinds of candidates. The goal here isn’t to create a consensus among all voters (unless there’s a clear-cut, 2016 Curry-level candidate), but rather to get them all to answer the same question.

Some people in the NBA community have suggested using basic statistical thresholds to establish the pool of All-NBA and MVP candidates, though that would unfairly weed out players whose value comes via defense, playmaking, screening, or other off-ball skills. Many have posited that only players on top-four or -six teams in their conference should be eligible, but that could skew voting toward players with less central roles on great teams and away from better ones who happen to have subpar teammates. Both of those criteria feel too rigid in a sport where team context, coaching and player collaboration contribute so much to team success.

If we want to leave room for interpretation, we should impose subjective constraints on voters rather than objective ones. Knowing that an 800-word blog post from a random guy who did not play NBA basketball will almost certainly have no effect on the way the collective NBA community thinks about basketball, I’d posit that the Most Valuable Player should be defined as “the player who contributes most to his team’s success on the court during the regular season, independent of his team’s overall record or place in the standings.” Truthfully, almost any definition would do, so long as voters know what, exactly, they’re supposed to be voting on. The sooner the NBA media community can reach that point, the better off we’ll all be.

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