By Tom Westerholm
After a violent, physical Game 4 against the Bucks, the Celtics can thank Al Horford for helping even the series with a 116-108 road victory.
The Celtics were on the ropes entering the fourth quarter after yet another collapse in the third, but Horford poured in 16 points in the period to lead them back. He dunked on Giannis Antetokounmpo and let loose a roar at a subdued Milwaukee crowd. He buried a pair of monstrous 3-pointers. He fired up a wild hook shot that fell through as he was fouled, which gave the Celtics a four-point lead.
Horford finished with 30 points on 11-for-14 shooting and 5-for-7 from deep. He looks rejuvenated, and the Celtics have a chance because of him. It’s unclear whether his 3-point shooting can remain at this level (a scorching 53.5 percent in the postseason) or if some amount of regression is inevitable, but the Celtics can thank the oldest player on the roster for giving them hope. A loss in Game 4, and the Celtics would have come crashing back down to earth after flying high since January — down 3-1 against the defending champions.
Udoka said Horford’s performance “energized” the Celtics.
“He’s been great all year, but we really needed him to step up with guys being out,” Udoka said. “He took that on his shoulders. They guard him a certain way, he’s able to attack, love the aggressiveness and extra.”
The Celtics reclaimed home-court advantage and dropped a whole heap of pressure off their shoulders. After Horford’s heroics, the series looks a lot different at 10:30 p.m. on Monday than it did at 9:20.
2. Jayson Tatum struggled for much of the game, but down the stretch when the Celtics needed reliable offense, he came through on several crucial possessions including a monstrous 3-pointer and this leaning layup that he impossibly willed through the net.
HOW DID TATUM GET THIS TO FALL 😱 pic.twitter.com/hPKREPidac
Tatum — who finished with 30 points on 11-for-24 shooting — didn’t have a dominant performance in his bounce back from an ugly Game 3 (4-for-19 from the floor), but he was big in the moments that mattered and helped the Celtics salvage their season.
“He finally got into a good rhythm,” Udoka said. “I think, possibly, with [Jaylen Brown] being out and with the ball in his hands a lot more, he finally found a good rhythm. We found some actions that we liked for him and then some isolations where we don’t always bring the screen, we feel we can beat his man. Give him a little bit more space to operate. He got downhill, got aggressive and started knocking down the 3s. What he’s been doing all year. Took him a little time to get going in this game but finished off well in the fourth obviously especially with JB being out.”
As great as Horford was in Game 4, there’s no guarantee he can continue this torrid pace, and Tatum himself showed how crucial it is to have a player who can create his own buckets in the big moments. Horford put the Celtics up four in the final quarter, but it was Tatum who carried them home.
“I played terrible Game 3 and we almost had a chance to win, and that was really the toughest part, just knowing that. So I was just really eager to get back and ready to play and whether it was scoring or not, just coming out and just playing better on both ends of the floor,” Tatum said, sounding exasperated with himself. “Doing what I can to help us get a win.”
3. Brown picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter trying (and failing) to guard Antetokounmpo. Brown struggled mightily when the Celtics let him get switched onto Antetokounmpo in Game 3, so they had plenty of warning, but Brown once again found himself facing Antetokounmpo on multiple unsuccessful occasions.
Maybe Brown didn’t like Antetokounmpo’s little push in his back in the fourth quarter, which prompted him to throw off Antetokounmpo’s conciliatory hand on his back, or maybe Brown was upset because Antetokounmpo spent much of the game hunting him. Either is plausible. Brown finished with 18 points on 5-for-11 shooting.
4. Marcus Smart scored a few crucial baskets in the fourth quarter and seemed to realize that certain Bucks matchups simply couldn’t contain him. It will be interesting to see if the Celtics hunt those matchups further going forward.
“Everybody played great in different stretches,” Tatum said.
5. Give the Celtics a lot of credit: They beat the Bucks without Robert Williams, who sat out with knee soreness.
6. The Horford trade this past summer was justified long before Monday, but his performance in Game 4 hammered home how essential that savvy move was to the Celtics’ success. In his post-game comments, Tatum somehow managed to sweeten the pot further.
“Al’s been great for the team, Al’s been great for me,” Tatum said, emphasizing the second part. “I’ve been fortunate enough to play with Al for three years and I remember coming in my rookie year and seeing Al Horford. I’ve been seeing him play my whole life, and it was great to see somebody taking care of their body, just be the ultimate professional, the ultimate teammate, and just all about the right things. Nobody can ever say anything about Al, and he’s helped me a great deal in the three years we’ve played together.
“I’m very lucky and fortunate to be able to call Al a teammate.”
Horford’s dunk with 9:51 remaining proved to be a crucial turning point.
OH MY! Al Horford with a nasty dunk on Giannis Antetokounmpo pic.twitter.com/FNzA1mmZK0
“The energy changed when that happened,” Smart said.
The Celtics tied the game with the slam and the free throw, capping an 11-1 run that dated back to a three by Derrick White in the third quarter that trimmed the lead from 10 to seven going into the break. The Celtics outscored the Bucks 43-28 in a dominant fourth quarter.
Earlier in the game, Antetokounmpo picked up a technical for dunking on Horford and then barking something at him.
GIANNIS WITH THE DUNK ON AL HORFORD pic.twitter.com/HwCrev1QsC
Horford nodded at Antetokounmpo after the play and kept nodding for several seconds.
“I don’t really know what he said to me, but the way that he was looking at me and the way he was going about it really didn’t sit well with me,” Horford said. “And I think at that point, something switched with me in the game.”
7. Something switched in the series too. Game 6 back in Milwaukee is now a certainty, but first the two teams travel back to Boston.
“I feel fine, and just can’t wait to go home, rest up and just be back in Boston,” Horford said.
“I’m excited to get back home, excited to play in front of our fans on Wednesday,” he said. “Get some rest and get back to it.”
The Celtics have a chance to take a 3-2 series lead at TD Garden on Wednesday, tipping off at 7 p.m.
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