MILWAUKEE – Down 2–1 within the sequence, its defensive spine on the bench and who does Boston flip to?
Al Horford, after all.
The Celtics are alive on this second-round sequence due to a 35-year previous ex-All-Star acquired final summer season for a damaged level guard and a mid-first spherical choose. Who knew that when Brad Stevens, in one in every of his first acts as president of basketball operations, flipped Kemba Walker and Boston’s ’21 first to amass Horford, that Boston’s title possibilities hinged on it?
I didn’t. You didn’t, both.
Horford has performed 132 playoff video games in his profession. Few had been higher than this one. None, maybe, had been extra impactful. In 42 minutes, Horford scored a playoff career-high 30 factors, 16 within the fourth quarter. “He made big shots,” mentioned Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. Mike Gorman, the voice of the Celtics for almost 4 many years, tweeted it was a top-three fourth quarter efficiency from a Celtics participant. Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 34 factors. The Horford-led protection compelled him to take 32 photographs 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 sequence. It’s a road combat. It’s a wrestling match in basketball sneakers. There had been 42 fouls known as in Game 4. There might have been 82. Elbows flew. Forearms, too. After the sport, Marcus Smart accused Antetokounmpo of kicking him. Bodies hit the bottom on almost each possession. Fiserv Forum regarded extra like Lambeau Field.
“Everybody’s fighting,” mentioned Smart. “You got the best players going at it.”
For some time, it regarded just like the Bucks would get the higher of it. It was a one-point recreation at halftime. But for the second straight recreation the Celtics got here out of the locker room flat. Antetokounmpo went off for 13 factors. Offensively, Boston shot 40% from the ground. Milwaukee pushed its result in 11 late within the third quarter. The edge was seven to begin the fourth, and the Celtics regarded in hassle.
And then … Horford. Forgotten within the Celtics’ loss in Game 3 was how good Horford was. He scored 22 factors and picked up 16 rebounds in 39 minutes. His game-tying tip-in within the fourth quarter got here a fraction of a second too late. Boston’s livid fourth quarter comeback got here up brief however it supplied motivation going into Game 4. Said Udoka, “We were all pretty pissed at the way we lost the last game.”
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Horford was motivated. Has been all season. Left for lifeless after a disastrous ’19-20 season in Philadelphia, Horford reemerged final 12 months in Oklahoma City. His three-point shot improved. Working with the Thunder medical employees, Horford received his physique proper. Oklahoma City’s resolution to close Horford down at midseason was strategic for the Thunder however enjoying simply 28 video games final season, Celtics workforce officers say, has seemingly benefited Horford on this one.
Yet when the Thunder fielded presents for Horford, nobody needed him. Not with out Oklahoma City attaching an asset together with him. Boston, led by Stevens, who coached Horford for 3 seasons, got here calling. The Celtics needed Horford, had been desperate to get off Walker’s contract and had been keen to connect a first-round choose to do it. In 69 video games, Horford averaged 10.2 factors, 7.7 rebounds and supplied veteran management Boston badly wanted. “He’s one of the best vets we’ve ever had,” Smart mentioned. “The best vet I’ve ever had.”
Horford was juiced for Game 4. But if he wanted extra motivation, he received within the second quarter, when Antetokounmpo scowled at Horford after a dunk, drawing a taunting technical for it. As he headed in direction of the opposite finish of the court docket, 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 within the fourth quarter Horford returned the favor, dunking on Antetokounmpo, catching the ex-MVP with an errant forearm on the way in which down.
He made all six of his photographs. He related on a pair of threes. He was plus-17 within the fourth and a team-high plus-20 for the sport.
“It was huge for us,” Smart mentioned. “It never changes with him. If things are going bad or good, he’s going to be him.”
Down the stretch, Horford received assist. Jayson Tatum had 18 factors by means of three quarters. But he wanted 18 photographs to get them. He didn’t have an help within the first half. He received to the free throw line twice. Milwaukee’s bodily protection, led by Jrue Holiday, has bothered him all through the sequence. But Tatum caught with it. He scored 12 factors within the fourth, connecting on 5 of his six photographs. He picked off a few rebounds. He handed out two assists. As Giannis drained, Tatum received going, punctuated by a 27-footer that gave Boston its first double-digit lead.
“I performed horrible in Game 3,” Tatum mentioned. “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,” mentioned Budenholzer. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” Antetokounmpo, at instances a one-man band offensively with Khris Middleton out, regarded drained within the fourth quarter on Monday. Holiday, who took 30 photographs in Game 3, was 5-22 in Game 4. As the sequence shifts again to Boston, the Bucks will want somebody to take the offensive strain off Antetokounmpo. “Nobody mentioned it’ll be simple,” Antetokounmpo mentioned. “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.”
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