BOSTON - The Boston Celtics elected to rest Al Horford three times over their last five games despite remaining in the hunt for a slice of home-court advantage in the playoffs. For Brad Stevens, it was a bit of a no-brainer.
Here's why: If the Celtics don't have a healthy Horford, it doesn't matter what seed they are, because their playoff stay will be short.
Consider this - for the month of March, the Celtics owned a net rating of plus-9.8 in the 353 minutes that Horford was on the court. This is absurd on its own for a team that was a minus-0.2 overall through 15 games in March. Even wilder, the Celtics were minus-11.6 in the 367 minutes that Horford was off the floor.
To put it in easier-to-digest terms: The Celtics were plus-80 for the month of March when Horford was on the floor; they were minus-82 when he wasn't.
"I mean it's been a huge emphasis, obviously, him sitting out [three times] in the last [handful] of games," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said before Boston's morning shootaround on Monday at Red's House. "We tried to monitor him a little bit in the Cleveland game, especially. Ultimately, he's really important to us. There's no question about it.
"Playing either the 5 or the 4, we're going to need him to play at a high level, and he's been great for the better part of the second half of the year. And we all know what he's been like in the playoffs the last couple of years."
Since the All-Star break, Horford has a team-best net rating of plus-6.5 while appearing in 16 of Boston's 19 games. The next closest player is Gordon Hayward (plus-3.3 in 15 games) and the only other regular in the positive is Aron Baynes (plus-1.1 in 13 games). Even Kyrie Irving is minus-0.7 in minutes comparable to Horford.
The more jarring number: The Celtics own a net rating of minus-12.9 when Horford is off the court since the All-Star break. The next worst number among regulars is Hayward at minus-5.9, and the team is minus-4.2 without Irving.
All of which simply hammers home why the team has worked so hard to find days to rest Horford and the balky knee that contributed to his slow start - at least by his standards - earlier in the year.
Horford isn't the type of player to enjoy missing games, but even he understands it's better to sit now than mid-April or beyond.
"Al's smart. Al gets it," said Stevens. "He just wants to win and he wants to play well at the end of the year and in the playoffs. It's something we have to manage appropriately with everybody but certainly it's been a huge emphasis with him. We're not as deep at that spot, as far as how he plays.
"He gives us a different dimension with his ability to stretch the floor and guard smaller guys as well."
Which is why it was somewhat comical to watch the social media outrage when the Celtics announced, on the heels of Friday's big win over Indiana, that the team would rest both Horford and Irving in Saturday's visit to Brooklyn.
A night after putting themselves in the driver's seat for the No. 4 seed with the gritty win over the Pacers, the Celtics took a calculated risk, sitting two of their key players against a Brooklyn team clinging to its playoff life. First off, after all the Brooklyn picks, this was the least the Celtics could do for the Nets. But Boston also banked that, on the second night of a back-to-back, and coming off an emotional battle in a game with playoff-like intensity, both Boston and Indiana were both going to have to really grind to find wins.
The Celtics were rewarded when a playoff-hungry Orlando squad won in Indiana.
Make no mistake, Boston should still have been more competitive in the second half than it showed versus the Nets. If depth is a hallmark of this team, it can't use the absence of two stars to justify the defensive dud it turned in (though it did quiet the "Better without Kyrie" crowd). Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris will draw the brunt of the gripes but the entire roster struggled to put up a defensive fight.
With all the back-to-backs in the rearview mirror, Boston can pace Horford along from here with games every other night the rest of the way. The Celtics and Pacers play eerily similar schedules, both playing a home-and-home with a team fighting for its playoff life, before the head-to-head battle Friday night in Indiana that should decide who emerges with the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in their first-round joust.
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A win Friday would give the Celtics the head-to-head tiebreaker and might allow them to find a bit more rest for guys like Horford over the final two games of the season, all of which could help line this team up to be as fresh as possible for the start of the playoffs.
Horford's play - and that of the team when he's on the court - is the biggest reason to be optimistic going into the postseason. Combine it with a surging Hayward and the potential for Playoff Kyrie and it's enough to give Boston a glimmer of hope in an otherwise miserably inconsistent 2018-19 season.
One of the things that we tend to forget while heaping praise on Boston's young core for last year's playoff run was how impactful Horford was in all those series. We tend to gloss over how Boston was a team-best plus-5.6 in net rating with Horford on the court, and a team-worst minus-11.2 without him.
Do those numbers sound familiar? Sort of like how the team has fared since the All-Star break?
Without a healthy Horford, there's no hope this postseason.
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