The Washington Post

Horford’s big night gets Boston all square

CELTICS 116, BUCKS 108 Antetokoun­mpo shines but gets little support

- BY BEN GOLLIVER

milwaukee — Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart and Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokoun­mpo lay exhausted in the backcourt, their bodies entangled and their hands clasped together.

The fourth-quarter playoff action Monday night continued without two of the NBA’S hardestwor­king players, but they just couldn’t seem to summon the energy to help each other get back on their feet. When Boston’s Al Horford scored on the other end, a still-horizontal Antetokoun­mpo slumped his shoulders and rested his head on the hardwood. The way to beat the two-time MVP, who has taken his game to new heights this postseason, has been to outlast him when his teammates falter.

On a night when both teams struggled to shoot — continuing a series-long trend — the Celtics shook off a slow start and rallied from an 11-point third-quarter deficit to claim a 116-108 victory in Game 4 at Fiserv Forum. Horford helped pull Boston back from the brink with a playoff career-high 30 points, eight rebounds and three assists to even this slugfest of a second-round series at two games apiece.

“We all understood the importance of this game,” Horford said. “At the end of Game 3, we were in a position to win, and we didn’t. I was just locked in. I understood the moment and what we needed to do as a group. I did whatever it took. It was one of those types of nights.”

The 35-year-old Horford has

long cultivated a reputation as a heady, steadying presence, but Monday he showed a rare electric streak. Shortly after halftime, Antetokoun­mpo dunked on Horford and received a technical for taunting. Horford answered early in the fourth quarter, throwing down a poster dunk of his own on Antetokoun­mpo that helped swing momentum in Boston’s favor.

“The way that [Antetokoun­mpo] was looking at me and going about it, it didn’t sit well with me,” Horford said. “Something switched with me.”

The veteran center followed up his dunk with a series of clutch jumpers, scoring 16 fourth-quarter points as Milwaukee stalled on the other end. Horford made a season-high five three-pointers, taking advantage of the Bucks’ drop coverage, which concedes outside shots in favor of protecting the paint.

“We weren’t surprised [by the dunk], but we were ecstatic,” Smart said. “The energy changed after that happened. Man, we love Al. He’s the best vet we’ve ever had. He’s been doing this for a very long time. He understand­s what he brings to the game and this team, and we needed every last bit of it. Al still has it. He was able to get up like he does.”

Horford’s throwback night came after his career had taken multiple left turns in recent years. After he reached the Eastern Conference finals with the Celtics in 2017 and 2018, only to lose to Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers both times, Horford signed with the rival Philadelph­ia 76ers in 2019. His poor fit alongside Joel Embiid led Philadelph­ia to trade him to the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder, where he played just 28 games last season and waited for a possible move back to a contender.

That trade materializ­ed last summer, when Boston’s newly minted president, Brad Stevens, reacquired Horford in exchange for Kemba Walker and draft picks. While the Celtics were eager to shed Walker’s contract, they also sought Horford’s crafty defense and passing skills.

With Boston’s season hanging in the balance in Game 4, the five-time all-star transforme­d from a sometimes reluctant scorer into an eager one, going 6 for 6

from the field in the final period.

“This is a series for [Horford] to be extra aggressive,” Celtics Coach Ime Udoka said. “He’s been great all year, but we really needed him to step up with guys being out. He took that on his shoulders.”

Horford’s timing couldn’t have been better. Boston made everything look easy during its firstround sweep of the Brooklyn Nets; Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown picked apart the Nets’ porous defense, and the Celtics held Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in check for much of the series. But the Bucks have proved to be a much more challengin­g propositio­n on both ends. Antetokoun­mpo has punished the Celtics’ front line in a way Durant could not, while Tatum has often struggled to find a rhythm.

The Celtics boasted the NBA’S top-ranked defense during the regular season and had a 17-5 record after the all-star break with active and unselfish play, but they have appeared flat in key moments against the Bucks. Boston opened on its heels in a Game 1 loss at home, then spent long stretches of a last-second Game 3 loss complainin­g to the officials. Instead of opening Game 4 with purpose, the Celtics fell into an early 8-2 hole as the Bucks pounded their interior defense with drives to the hoop.

Already struggling to handle Antetokoun­mpo’s physicalit­y, Boston was dealt a tough blow when center Robert Williams was a late scratch because of left knee soreness. Williams, an athletic shot-blocker, underwent left knee surgery in March that sidelined him until midway through the Nets’ series. Antetokoun­mpo took advantage of Williams’s absence, finding high-percentage scoring opportunit­ies in the paint and attacking Brown, who spent much of the second half in foul trouble. By night’s end, the Bucks had outrebound­ed the Celtics 48-38 and tallied 52 points in the paint.

But the Celtics managed to hang tough and eventually wear down the Bucks, who couldn’t conjure enough supporting offense for Antetokoun­mpo, who finished with a game-high 34 points, 18 rebounds and five assists. Milwaukee shot just 9 for 27 from beyond the arc, and its cold shooting opened the door for Boston.

“The thing about the playoffs: You win, you feel great. You lose, you feel terrible,” Antetokoun­mpo said, looking ahead to Game 5 in Boston on Wednesday. “No matter what I feel, emotions are for movies, not for basketball.”

Tatum, who spent all of Game 3 and much of Game 4 struggling to find his shot against Bucks stopper Wesley Matthews, finally came alive in the closing minutes, scoring eight straight points to seal the victory. The three-time all-star finished with 30 points, 13 rebounds and five assists, hitting a dagger three-pointer and a twirling layup to finish off the comeback.

“[ Tatum] is a hell of a player,” Matthews said. “A hell of a scorer. He was getting downhill. I take responsibi­lity for that. Too many straight-line drives let him get a rhythm. He’s going to make tough shots. He made one falling over and flicking it. Hats off to him.”

The Bucks, who for much of the night looked poised to take a commanding series lead, must regroup and find a way to lessen Antetokoun­mpo’s burden without forward Khris Middleton, who remains sidelined by a hamstring injury. Jrue Holiday scored 16 points but went just 5 for 22 from the field, and too often Milwaukee’s attack consisted of Antetokoun­mpo serving as both initiator and finisher.

“He never wants to come out,” Bucks Coach Mike Budenholze­r said of Antetokoun­mpo, who played a team-high 41 minutes. “We’ve got to help him. We’ve got to get him his rest. We’ve got to play well around him. He’ll be fine.”

 ?? Morry Gash/associated Press ?? Al Horford showed a rare electric streak in Game 4, with a playoff career-high 30 points.
Morry Gash/associated Press Al Horford showed a rare electric streak in Game 4, with a playoff career-high 30 points.

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