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The Al Horford Game Saves the Celtics’ Season

Horford’s ice-cold dunk on Giannis shifted not only the vibe in Game 4, but also maybe in this slugfest of a series

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Giannis Antetokounmpo said something. We don’t know what—honestly, Al Horford couldn’t quite make it out either—but he said something.

Which, y’know, fair enough. When you sprint the length of the court, body up a dude you’ve become far too well acquainted with, and throw down a Statue of Liberty slam directly in their face during Game 4 of a hotly contested, brutally physical second-round series, sure, a little bit of mean-mugging and woofing might follow.

To the untrained eye, Horford’s reaction to Giannis’s post-throwdown taunts was par for the course he’s charted for the past 15 years: quiet, reserved acknowledgement, quickly set aside in favor of moving on to the next play. To an expert observer of the Celtic veteran’s condition, though—like, say, his sister—the manner of his response looked anything but.

As it turned out: Yeah, he was pissed. And a little over two minutes into the fourth quarter, with the Celtics trying to save their season, Horford gave the Bucks’ two-time MVP two things: a receipt, and a reminder that it’s the quiet ones you’ve really got to worry about. Because if you’re not careful, one of those quiet ones—one who many thought was washed up after nightmarish one-and-done stints in Philadelphia and Oklahoma City—might just cram one right on your friggin’ cruller.

That’s the indelible memory that’ll be seared into the gray matter of everyone who tuned in on Monday: Horford not only responding to Giannis’s physicality and flexing, but doing him one better, leaving Milwaukee’s muscle flat on his back, staring up at the lights in Fiserv Forum and wondering whether anybody got the license plate number of that truck. The moment’s never just about the one moment, though: The uppercut landed because Horford had spent three quarters—and, really, most of four games—setting the Bucks up with the jab.

All series long, the Celtics have known that when the Bucks play drop pick-and-roll coverage, and Horford sets a screen and pops to the perimeter, he’ll be staring at a wide-open 3. And all series long, Horford had taken and made the shots the defense gave him, shooting 12-for-26 from 3-point range (along with some midrange pops against the drop) before that fateful early fourth-quarter possession. In the macro sense, Milwaukee’s preferred math demands living with Horford shooting 3s so long as the rim’s protected. But in the context of a dwindling lead, an 8-0 Boston run, and the ball landing in the hands of a dude who’s been canning jumpers all night, it’s not always easy to see the bigger picture; that’s why the shot fake worked, drawing an overeager Giannis out to the arc and allowing Horford to serve him some ice-cold revenge.

After another dominant Giannis third quarter, the Bucks looked to have Boston on the brink, perhaps just a few minutes away from a commanding 3-1 lead. Instead, the Celtics responded to the feel of the wall on their backs by climbing out of an 11-point hole, knotting the score with Horford’s emphatic counterpunch. It felt like the moment the vibe shifted—not only in Game 4, but also maybe in this slugfest of a series. With Horford and a resurgent Jayson Tatum leading the way, Boston roared across the finish line, carving the postseason’s no. 1 defense up to the tune of 43 points on scorching 16-for-19 shooting in the fourth quarter and earning a 116-108 victory that tied the series at two games apiece. After Milwaukee seized home-court advantage in Game 1, the Celtics wrested it back on Monday; now, it’s a best-of-three, with two of those games set to come at TD Garden.

Horford finished with 30 points on 11-for-14 shooting, the most he’d scored since November 2019, and more than he’d scored in any of his 131 previous playoff games. He’s just the 22nd player age 35 or older to hang 30 in the playoffs, and the first Celtic to do it since John Havlicek did it 45 years ago. He also added eight rebounds, three assists, just one turnover, and more exemplary defense on Antetokounmpo, whom he’s held to 47 points across four games on 19-for-53 shooting in this series, according to NBA Advanced Stats’ matchup data. The Celtics outscored the Bucks by 20 points in Horford’s 42 minutes, and were outscored by 12 in the seven-plus minutes he rested. With starting center Robert Williams III sidelined by left knee soreness, and with most of the Celtics misfiring against Milwaukee’s meat-grinder defense, head coach Ime Udoka needed more from Horford. He responded with nothing less than the finest game of his postseason career.

The biggest concern for Milwaukee coming out of Game 4, though, isn’t that Horford’s going to keep ringing them up for 30. It’s the possibility that, even if his hot shooting against the drop cools down, Boston’s most dangerous scorer might finally be heating up.

Tatum shot just 35.1 percent from the floor through the first three games of Round 2 and 6-for-18 from the field through the first three quarters of Game 4, struggling to finish against Milwaukee’s length inside and frequently looking uncomfortable against the aggressive perimeter defense of Wes Matthews and Jrue Holiday. The All-Star forward finally came alive down the stretch, though, scoring 12 of his 30 points over the final six and a half minutes.

Udoka put Tatum to work as the power forward in a five-out lineup, with Horford and three of Boston’s guards fanned out beyond the 3-point arc. With the floor spread, Tatum had the space to drive hard, turn the corner, and finish; he also had the opportunity to call for ball screens to hunt the smaller George Hill, using his size and strength advantage to either back the veteran into the paint for bunnies or pull up and shoot right over the top of him.

Those small-ball looks were dynamite for Boston in Game 4, outscoring the Bucks by 25 points in 18 minutes and producing well over 1.5 points per possession—incredible efficiency in any context, and absolutely vital in a series in which every point comes at a premium. Matthews will continue making Tatum work for every inch of space, and finishing amid Milwaukee’s tall trees won’t be easy. But with the injury to Khris Middleton severely straining the Bucks’ wing depth beyond Pat Connaughton, leading coach Mike Budenholzer to lean on Hill and Grayson Allen, now a minus-19 in 111 minutes in this series, going small effectively demands Bud trot out multiple weak links that Tatum—and Jaylen Brown, who had 18 points despite battling foul trouble, and Marcus Smart, who had nine of his 18 points in the fourth—can look to single out and exploit.

The Boston defense, which has held the Bucks to just over one point per possession in this series, features far fewer potential mismatches to attack. And without Middleton to turn to as a viable source of late-game offense, the shot-creation burden in Milwaukee falls entirely on Antetokounmpo and Holiday, who are both averaging nearly 40 minutes per game while shouldering massive defensive burdens, with Giannis looking increasingly gassed by the fourth quarter and Holiday shooting a dismal 31-for-92 in the series—especially during Giannis’s brief rests. (During the regular season, Holiday was one of the most efficient and versatile isolation scorers in the NBA; against Boston’s array of ace perimeter defenders, he’s averaging a ghastly 0.66 points per isolation, according to Second Spectrum.)

Just one day off between games means Antetokounmpo and Holiday won’t have much time to recover, either, which doesn’t bode well for their chances of looking fresher and sharper as the series goes longer and grows even more intense. Getting Middleton back would be a massive boost, but one the Bucks can’t bank on; TNT’s Stephanie Ready reported during Game 4 that Budenholzer said the All-Star forward had progressed to “very light contact,” but whether that augurs a return for Wednesday’s Game 5 remains to be seen.

If Middleton can’t come back, and if Bud can’t find a few extra buckets somewhere else on the bench without capsizing the defense, then the state of play is clear: Jrue has to shoot more judiciously and more accurately, and Giannis has to be, well, not only the best player on the floor, but the best player on the planet, and by an even greater margin than he’s managed to date. This is possible; it is also extremely difficult. And Al Horford sure doesn’t seem interested in making it any easier.