Domantas Sabonis of the Indiana Pacers and Al Horford of the Boston Celtics

The Pacers have an Al Horford problem

The Indiana Pacers won’t ever win if Al Horford shuts down both of their bigs.

Al Horford is very good. We’ve known this and seen this throughout multiple seasons. But watching him contain both Domantas Sabonis AND Myles Turner in the playoffs has really driven home that point, and the Pacers need a gameplan to get their bigs going against him.

He is seamlessly switching between two different defensive roles, and yet he does so perfectly. Like this, defending the ball handler and Myles Turner all at once (Myles still hit the shot). When defending Turner, he corrals ball-handlers and still is able to recover to Turner and contest his jumpers:

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His work defending Sabonis has been equally terrific. While containing the guard attacking the basket, he would send perfectly timed double teams to Domas in the post to prevent him from shooting over his right shoulder:

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The Pacers should have an advantage in the post. Sabonis has been one of the leagues most skilled bigs all season long. His passing, screen setting, and finishing have all been borderline elite when compared to other big men in the league. Myles Turner has a unique ability to space out the floor with an effective 3-point shot and is one of the best interior defenders in the association. Horford is better than both of them, but the Celtics should not have an advantage inside in the aggregate.

To be fair, Horford is really good. REALLY good. Check out his talent grades:

Look at all that blue! Horford is a beast on both ends of the floor for many years now, but having it displayed in this way shows the gusto Horford has on the floor. There’s a reason he is able to contain both Sabonis AND Turner. He can do it all — defend the perimeter and the paint, and that makes it impossibly hard to beat him.

But there is a blueprint. At least I think there is. But Horford is prepared for everything, so maybe I’m wrong. Either way, what is working now isn’t working.

Sabonis and Turner can screen, but none of their follow up actions and variable. Sabonis rolls. Turner pops. Very rarely does either of them mix it up, which means Horford can beat them with good positioning. That isn’t the way to beat him.

Horford is a master of the positions he needs to stand in to cover the most ground and the angles he needs to cover to prevent passes from flying past him. He’s fantastic at it, if not the best in the league. But!

He’s stationery when that’s happening, which is a microcosm of something about his game. He’s slow! The NBA tracks speed now, and Horford ranks as the slowest rotation player on the Celtics overall and on the defensive end.

Horford’s great positioning means he doesn’t have to move quickly to relocate to the proper spot on the floor when he has to move. That’s a credit to him. But he’s vulnerable when he has to move longer distances:

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Horford shuffles back ok there, but both Sabonis and Collison are quicker than him. That forces him to turn his body to stop the ball and end his stint covering Sabonis. A simple pocket pass is all it took to get Domas past Horford.

That’s the blueprint. Make Hordford move, a lot, and fast. That requires movement from the Pacers big men, but that shouldn’t be a new concept.

Both Sabonis and Turner move at a higher average speed than Horford. This shouldn’t be a surprise — Horford has over a decade on both of them, the younger guys are spry. That needs to be used to their advantage more frequently.

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That clip actually features part 2 of how I think you “beat” Horford, though it is related to the first suggestion.

Horford curtails the ball-handler there and forces a pass. But as a defender rotates, that leaves the extra pass wide open, which is where the basket ultimately came from. Horford scurries to contest the Matthews triple, but he isn’t quite quick enough to get out in time.

Yes, if Horford was a bit faster, he could have been there on time to prevent the shot. But this clip also stresses the importance of stretching out the floor when Horford is involved in the action. It forces him to move faster in a similar way to Sabonis scurrying past him.

Ironically, these are the strengths of these guys. Turner can shoot and space out the floor, as he showed in the most recent clip. Sabonis can dive to the basket with reckless abandon, making Horford cover him. Catering to the offensive strengths of the centers is crucial to beating the Celtics maestro defensive big.

Whey Sabonis and Turner share the floor together is when the problem persists. Their skills overlap too much and clog up spacing in a way that allows Horford to dominate. And I mean dominate.

Horford, Sabonis, and Turner have shared the court for 62 Pacers offensive possessions. On those possessions, the Pacers have scored 28 points. Twenty. Eight. That’s a 45.2 offensive rating, which is, uh, not sustainable.

They can’t beat Horford with both of those guys on the floor. It just isn’t possible. The only way it can work is to stick Horford’s matchup in the corner, but the two centers are too skilled to be reduced to that role. One of them should be subbed out.

Completing de-weaponizing Al Horford on defense is actually impossible. He is too good to play off the floor like some other centers. But there are blueprints. Fly around him. Spread him out. Don’t play two centers against him.

If all of those things are done, perhaps Al Horford’s defensive impact can go from game deciding to simply game influencing. That’s a huge step in the right direction for the Pacers.

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