With Horford facilitating, Celtics get back to 'beautiful basketball'

BOSTON -- Before Friday’s visit to play the Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic coach Frank Vogel offered high praise for Boston big man Al Horford, calling him maybe the “most underrated guy in the league.” Then, his poor Magic team got a reminder of why Horford earned those plaudits.

Horford matched a career high by dishing out 10 assists, seven of which came in the first quarter, as the Celtics bucked their season-long trend of slow starts during a 118-103 triumph over the Magic at TD Garden.

Kyrie Irving scored a game-high 30 points over just 25 minutes, and Terry Rozier snapped out of a recent shooting funk to score a career-best 23 points off the bench. But it was Horford who set the tone after Celtics coach Brad Stevens subtly reminded his team that ball movement would be key to Boston's avoiding the first-half lulls that plagued the Celtics even during their recent 16-game winning streak.

Horford assisted on Boston’s first four field goals over an 87-second span early in the first quarter. First, he found Irving coming off a screen, then he had a drive-and-kick for a Jayson Tatum 3-pointer. After a handoff got Tatum another clean look, Horford pushed the ball up the court off a rebound and fed Irving for an alley-oop layup.

Horford finished with just five points, but his assists led to 23 total points before an early end to his night with Boston comfortable out front.

"Probably the most underrated guy in the league, in my opinion, for everything he does,” Vogel said. "He plays the 4, he plays the 5, holds the fort down blocking shots. They’re able to switch on defense, and his communication on that end of the floor with his hands. And, obviously, when you have the ability to have five 3-point [shooters] out there with what he can do [offensively]. If you switch and he rolls it down to the post and gives space to Kyrie and their wings ... to me, he’s probably the most underrated guy in the league.”

For Boston, Friday’s offensive explosion was a welcome sight. During the winning streak, the Celtics needed to rally from behind eight times. That included coming back from multiple double-digit deficits. Heck, Boston nearly dug itself out of another big hole before losing in Miami on Wednesday.

Boston’s offensive rating in the first half of games this season was an anemic 96.6. On Friday, Boston scored a season-high 73 first-half points and had a first-half offensive rating of 139.

“We didn’t meet at all the last two days, but that message [moving the ball from side to side] was sent out,” Stevens said. “Hopefully, we can continue to play that way. Like, if we don’t ... if we don’t get it side to side, it’s hard to score on good NBA defenses.”

It also helps to have a playmaker such as Irving on the floor, as he reached 30 points for the third time in Boston’s past four games (this after putting up 30 points just once in the team’s first 15 outings).

Irving added to his season highlight reel against the poor Magic, often utilizing stop-and-go dribble moves that turned his defenders into pretzels. Irving shook Evan Fournier with a quick stop, then dribbled right around him when he tried to recover for a layup in the first half. Mo Speights was likewise victimized after getting caught in isolation after a switch in the third quarter.

Boston opened its biggest lead of the season (32) in the second half, which allowed Irving and Horford to take the fourth quarter off. That’s a big benefit for a Boston team set to play the second night of a back-to-back set Saturday at Indiana.

"I’m just glad I’m on the same team as [Horford],” Irving said. "So I appreciate him every single day. I think Frank only gets to see him once or twice or on film or something like that. So my appreciation that I have for Al goes every single day I get to play with him.

“I think he had like seven assists in the first quarter. So when Al’s playing like that, guys are making shots, as well, it makes the game a lot easier for all of us. Just the pace, as well, him getting a rebound and pushing it out, screening his man and getting us open -- he does a great job of that.”

When the conversation turned to Boston’s ball movement -- which generated 27 assists on 42 field goals -- Irving added: "Beautiful basketball. Beautiful basketball when the game is played the right way. Not saying we haven’t been doing it, but it was going side to side, and guys were driving and kicking and getting to spots where we needed to be. It was beautiful to watch and beautiful to be a part of.”

The Celtics might need to keep up their ball-moving ways Saturday against the Pacers, especially if they are down two starters. Jaylen Brown is questionable as he treks to Georgia for the funeral of his best friend Saturday morning (he hopes to rejoin the team for the game), while Marcus Morris will not make the trip as the team manages his minutes with a view to staying on top of the knee soreness that sidelined him at the start of the season.

"Coach would rather I sleep in my own bed, rehab [Saturday],” Morris said. “Probably go to the Jay-Z concert. Do something. I’d rather be on the road with my team, honestly. But he made the decision.”