MILWAUKEE – Down 2–1 in the series, its defensive backbone on the bench and who does Boston turn to?
Al Horford, of course.
The Celtics are alive in this second-round series because of a 35-year old ex-All-Star acquired last summer for a broken point guard and a mid-first round pick. Who knew that when Brad Stevens, in one of his first acts as president of basketball operations, flipped Kemba Walker and Boston’s ’21 first to acquire Horford, that Boston’s title chances hinged on it?
I didn’t. You didn’t, either.
Horford has played 132 playoff games in his career. Few were better than this one. None, perhaps, were more impactful. In 42 minutes, Horford scored a playoff career-high 30 points, 16 in the fourth quarter. “He made big shots,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. Mike Gorman, the voice of the Celtics for nearly four decades, tweeted it was a top-three fourth quarter performance from a Celtics player. Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 34 points. The Horford-led defense forced him to take 32 shots to get them.
Said Ime Udoka, “We really needed him to step up with guys being out. He took that on his shoulders.”
This isn’t a series. It’s a street fight. It’s a wrestling match in basketball sneakers. There were 42 fouls called in Game 4. There could have been 82. Elbows flew. Forearms, too. After the game, Marcus Smart accused Antetokounmpo of kicking him. Bodies hit the ground on nearly every possession. Fiserv Forum looked more like Lambeau Field.
“Everybody’s fighting,” said Smart. “You got the best players going at it.”
For a while, it looked like the Bucks would get the better of it. It was a one-point game at halftime. But for the second straight game the Celtics came out of the locker room flat. Antetokounmpo went off for 13 points. Offensively, Boston shot 40% from the floor. Milwaukee pushed its lead to 11 late in the third quarter. The edge was seven to start the fourth, and the Celtics looked in trouble.
And then … Horford. Forgotten in the Celtics’ loss in Game 3 was how good Horford was. He scored 22 points and collected 16 rebounds in 39 minutes. His game-tying tip-in in the fourth quarter came a fraction of a second too late. Boston’s furious fourth quarter comeback came up short but it offered motivation going into Game 4. Said Udoka, “We were all pretty pissed at the way we lost the last game.”
Horford was motivated. Has been all season. Left for dead after a disastrous ’19-20 season in Philadelphia, Horford reemerged last year in Oklahoma City. His three-point shot improved. Working with the Thunder medical staff, Horford got his body right. Oklahoma City’s decision to shut Horford down at midseason was strategic for the Thunder but playing just 28 games last season, Celtics team officials say, has likely benefited Horford in this one.
Yet when the Thunder fielded offers for Horford, no one wanted him. Not without Oklahoma City attaching an asset along with him. Boston, led by Stevens, who coached Horford for three seasons, came calling. The Celtics wanted Horford, were eager to get off Walker’s contract and were willing to attach a first-round pick to do it. In 69 games, Horford averaged 10.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and provided veteran leadership Boston badly needed. “He’s one of the best vets we’ve ever had,” Smart said. “The best vet I’ve ever had.”
Horford was juiced for Game 4. But if he needed more motivation, he got in the second quarter, when Antetokounmpo scowled at Horford after a dunk, drawing a taunting technical for it. As he headed towards the other end of the court, Horford nodded calmly. Inside, he was fuming. “I didn’t make out what he said, but the way he looked at me didn’t sit well with me. That got me going.”
Early in the fourth quarter Horford returned the favor, dunking on Antetokounmpo, catching the ex-MVP with an errant forearm on the way down.
He made all six of his shots. He connected on a pair of threes. He was plus-17 in the fourth and a team-high plus-20 for the game.
“It was huge for us,” Smart said. “It never changes with him. If things are going bad or good, he’s going to be him.”
Down the stretch, Horford got help. Jayson Tatum had 18 points through three quarters. But he needed 18 shots to get them. He didn’t have an assist in the first half. He got to the free throw line twice. Milwaukee’s physical defense, led by Jrue Holiday, has bothered him throughout the series. But Tatum stuck with it. He scored 12 points in the fourth, connecting on five of his six shots. He picked off a couple of rebounds. He handed out two assists. As Giannis tired, Tatum got going, punctuated by a 27-footer that gave Boston its first double-digit lead.
“I played terrible in Game 3,” Tatum said. “I was just ready to play. Whether it was scoring or not, I just wanted to play better. Play better basketball, you know?”
This is a war of attrition now. “It’s the playoffs,” said Budenholzer. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” Antetokounmpo, at times a one-man band offensively with Khris Middleton out, looked tired in the fourth quarter on Monday. Holiday, who took 30 shots in Game 3, was 5-22 in Game 4. As the series shifts back to Boston, the Bucks will need someone to take the offensive pressure off Antetokounmpo. “Nobody said it’s going to be easy,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’ve got to go to Boston and play good basketball.”
Indeed. Boston reclaimed home-court advantage, but the Bucks have proven they can win there. And the Celtics are just as tired and even more banged up. Robert Williams, who made a quicker than expected recovery from knee surgery in March, sat out Game 4 with knee soreness. It’s unclear when he will return. As this series enters its final stage, the Bucks have to believe they can still win it.
“It wasn’t our game,” said Antetokounmpo. “It was their game today. You have to tip your hat and come out ready for Game 5.”