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Al Horford Is the Engine of the Celtics’ Monster Defense

Plus: Dennis Smith Jr.’s one-sided approach, Ben Simmons getting it done on D, and more takeaways from across the NBA

Boston’s season seemed doomed when Gordon Hayward broke his leg and dislocated his ankle five minutes into the first game. One month later, the Celtics are winners of 15 straight games and have the NBA’s best record, thanks in large part to their intense, versatile defense. The Celtics are allowing only 95.9 points per 100 possessions, which is not only the best this season but the best since the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, when the Bulls (95.3) and Celtics (95.5) locked down the Eastern Conference.

Despite losing Hayward, Boston’s roster is littered with intense defenders who can switch onto multiple positions. Kyrie Irving sets the tone. Marcus Smart is the energizer behind their star. Terry Rozier has helped fill the shoes of Avery Bradley. Jaylen Brown is already better than Jae Crowder (as expected). Rookies Jayson Tatum and Semi Ojeleye are using their versatility to lock down opponents all over the court. Marcus Morris has acclimated quickly. Daniel Theis, picked up off the international scrap pile, has offered minutes when Boston needs a defensive big more versatile than Aron Baynes, who himself has brought energy and size.

But the player who makes the Celtics’ defense go is Al Horford. If the Defensive Player of the Year vote happened today, Horford might win it. The 11th-year veteran has been central to Boston’s stifling of superstar opponents ranging from Kristaps Porzingis to Carmelo Anthony to Joel Embiid, among others. The Celtics’ success is a testament to the entire coaching staff and the players, but Horford is the defense’s linebacker: He directs others and is almost always in the right position.

Horford averages only 0.7 steals and 0.5 blocks per game, but defensive counting stats don’t begin to tell his impact. He isn’t as much of a shot blocker as he’s a master of angles. He uses positioning and timing to stick in front of the opponent. He’s light on his feet and can keep in front of guards, or freakish forwards like Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“We’re focused on understanding that you have to do your job well and if you do it, you have a chance,” head coach Brad Stevens said Thursday after beating the Warriors. “If you always do it, then you have a chance to win that possession. And if you win that possession, you have a chance to win the game.” It’s a coaching cliché to “take it one play at a time,” but there’s merit to it. The Celtics are winning possessions, which accumulate into games. Horford sets an example for the rest of the team with plays like this:

Horford hustles. He communicates. He doesn’t take plays off. He boxes out. He always closes out and never misses rotations. Mistakes happen for any team, but it sure helps when the team’s anchor is always on point.

The Celtics need to keep their defense up, too, because their offense isn’t clicking yet. They’re 21st in offensive rating, and when either Irving or Horford is off the floor, they struggle to put up points. It’s scary to think about what this team could be once Hayward returns, whether it’s miraculously before or during the playoffs, or next season. In the meantime, the Celtics need to keep grinding on defense. “This league will humble you pretty quickly,” Stevens said last Thursday. “There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, so we just need to keep preparing the right way.”

Dennis Smith Jr.’s Left Isn’t Quite Right

Smith Jr.’s afterburners could thrust him into space.

Enjoy the highlight, but also take note of how Pau Gasol is defending him. You’ll see that Smith drives to his left because Gasol is funneling him in that direction. Smith is taking what the defense gives him and making them pay. But there’s a reason the rookie is being shaded to his right: He needs to get better finishing with his left hand.

Smith’s performance has been extremely encouraging, but like any rookie, areas in need of improvement have emerged. Smith frequently zigs left, then pulls out tricks to go back right.

That’s what it looks like when it works. Beautiful. But here’s what it looks like when it doesn’t work:

Mavericks play-by-play announcer Mark Followill was flabbergasted when Smith missed on the play above. There’s no good reason for the rookie to miss that layup, but Smith is a righty shooter and a right-hand-dominant finisher. On 107 shots in the paint so far this season, Smith has finished using his right hand 87 times and with both hands 14 times (all dunks), compared to only six times with his left, according to data I tracked manually. Smith’s rate is especially notable considering the frequency he gets eased left. He’s 2-for-6 on left-handed shots in the paint, which is obviously a small sample size, but that’s the point: He rarely ever uses that hand.

Instead, Smith tends to opt for right-handed finishes on the left side of the rim, even when he should be going left to keep the ball as far away as possible from the rim protector.

Anthony Davis had three swats against Smith in this game, with a nearly identical block happening earlier in the game. Of course, it’s one thing if a tremendous shot blocker like Davis is coming at you with his freakish 7-foot-6 wingspan. It’s another when Kyle Anderson does it.

Smith would be better served using his left hand on these finishes, while using his right hip to keep the defender away from the ball. If he develops ambidextrousness near the rim, it’ll be much harder to defend. For now, defenses know to send him left. On pick-and-rolls that take place on the left side of the floor, the rookie dribbles baseline over half of the time, and he goes middle nearly 75 percent of the time on right-side pick-and-rolls, per Synergy. The scouting report on Smith is out. That’s a good sign, because it speaks to his immediate importance to Dallas’s offense. But for Smith to take a big step forward in his progression, he must become as crafty he is explosive.

Ben Simmons Is Emerging on Defense, Too

Speaking of right-hand dominance, let’s talk about Simmons. This time, we’ll focus on something other than which hand he uses; we’ll look at his defense. (Though Simmons uses his right hand around the basket even more frequently than Smith.) In March 2016, Jonathan Givony, then of Draft Express and The Vertical, wrote, “Those who know [Simmons] best say he needs things to revolve around him on and off the court and that he’s often been close-minded to coaching or instruction.” I had heard the same things. I ranked Brandon Ingram ahead of Simmons for a lot of the same reasons Givony did (nonexistent jumper, “lack of competitiveness,” and “porous” defense). I don’t regret it. Ingram can still be a very good player. He was always going to take longer to develop because of the physical maturation he needed. But personality matters, and in that regard, Ingram seemed much further ahead. But now he’s being lapped by Simmons as a prospect. The 6-foot-10 Sixers point guard has matured exponentially in the year and a half since the 2016 draft, which is most apparent with his defense.

During the opening scene of The Big Lebowski, the narrator describes the Dude as a “lazy man,” who could be “high in the running for laziest worldwide.” It felt that way watching Simmons lollygag on defense in college, even during close games. Simmons was unhappy at LSU—which isn’t an excuse for not trying, but he also had no business wasting a year in the SEC, anyway. Despite his apparent lack of interest, he would fly in for blocks or jump passing lanes enough to tease the possibility of becoming a high-level defender. Now he’s putting it all together.

Simmons has showcased his defensive versatility this season for the Sixers. His lateral quickness was never an issue, nor was his strength in the interior. It was effort. But he’s regularly battled on the post against bigs like Al Horford, or run through screens against the likes of Stephen Curry. He’ll slip occasionally and close out with poor fundamentals or not get his hand up to contest a shot. But for the most part, Simmons has shined on the defensive end.

The pre-draft concerns were fair, but they were also overblown. Simmons has fallen into a perfect situation with the Sixers, playing alongside a fellow transcendent star in Embiid and under a motivational head coach in Brett Brown. He has forces around him to keep him plugged in, and it’s working.

How Anfernee Simons May Fit Into the 2018 Draft

Givony reported this week that Anfernee Simons, a top-15 recruit from the high school class of 2018, is “strongly considering” declaring for the 2018 NBA draft. Simons turns 19 in June and is currently doing a post-grad year, so he meets the requirements to enter, should he choose to. “As long as the opportunity is there, I will do it,” Simons said, adding that he’d go to the NBA combine or participate in individual workouts if teams invite him.

A number of factors are in play for Simons. The 2018 draft class has five legitimate contenders for the no. 1 pick, while the 2019 draft could have significant depth. The one-and-done rule could soon be extinguished, as Adrian Wojnarowski recently reported. Five NBA team executives I spoke with expect the 2019 draft will allow high schoolers. “Sooner than later,” said one executive. “Everyone’s on the same page.” If that happens, it’s possible the 2019 draft class—which already includes R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, and Bol Bol—will also feature top talent scheduled to be draftable in 2020, such as James Wiseman and Charles Bassey.

Meanwhile, the 2018 class lacks depth at guard, which could be good news for Simons. The long and athletic 6-foot-3 combo guard still has a lot of growing to do as a player, both from the physical and skills standpoints. He’s a fluid ball handler who needs to get better at finishing against contact, but his shot-creation ability and upside as a shooter are apparent. Simons is raw and young, but that hasn’t stopped teams before from taking projects high in the draft.

Dewayne Dedmon … for 3!

Bigs are shooting 3s more than ever. While it's not all that surprising to see knockdown midrange shooters like Marc Gasol and Al Horford taking a few steps back before firing away, someone like Dewayne Dedmon jacking up more 3s in a month than he had in his entire career shows just how far we’ve come.

Dedmon has hit 42.1 percent of his 19 3-point attempts this season, which exceeds his total of one attempt (a half-court heave) over his previous 3,367 minutes in four seasons, including the playoffs. More incredibly, only one out of every eight shots Dedmon attempted prior to this season came from 10 feet and out, compared to one out of every two this season with the Hawks. In today’s shooting-happy NBA, If bigs don’t adapt, they perish. Dedmon has transformed into a new player, seemingly overnight.

Bjelly Up

Nemanja Bjelica won Euroleague MVP in 2015 and then opted out of his contract to play in the NBA. The 6-foot-10 Serbian was a bit player the past two seasons with the Wolves before a fractured navicular bone in his left foot ended his 2016-17 campaign. Now he’s back and has either figured out the NBA or is having a flash-in-the-pan moment. Either way, it’s a joy watching “Bjelly” splash 3s from outer space.

Bjelica has hit an unsustainable 57.1 percent of his 3s so far this season, but the hot streak extends beyond his shooting numbers. He’s devastating teams by simply playing hard and running fast.

Minnesota’s bench appeared shaky prior to the season. But with a 10-6 record, it’s the reserves, led by Bjelica, that have helped win them games.

Stranger Ricky

I just got done watching Stranger Things Season 2, which was enjoyable, sort of aimless, and not as good as the first season. But it was a fun break from basketball … except for when it wasn’t a break at all:

The glorious brown mullet belongs to one Steve Harrington. And since Stranger Things crossed over into basketball, I started thinking about how the looks of 1984 could cross back into the NBA—namely, which NBA player could grow the best Harringtonesque mullet.

Spencer Hawes first came to mind, but he’s no longer on a roster. Kelly Olynyk is a strong possibility, but his hair looks thin. It could be Kristaps Porzingis, but his hair is short right now.

The choice, I think, has to be Ricky Rubio. His hair is not quite near mullet length, but it’s already long enough to tie into a man bun. “He’d need to grow it out another three inches, but he could do it,” said my mom, a hairstylist of 29 years, when asked if Rubio could pull off Harrington’s look. “He has the straight, thick hair to do it.”

Well, that’s that. Rubio is our choice. Here’s a Photoshop of Ricky Rubio as Steve Harrington, courtesy of Ringer designer Matt James.

Not bad, right? We may have stumbled upon Rubio’s next look. Who knows? Maybe the new hairstyle is the key to finally improving his jump shot. Stranger things have happened.