The Boston Celtics rallied from an 11-point deficit in the second half, and pulled away in the final few minutes for a 116-108 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal. The series is now all tied at 2-2 and will shift back to Boston for a pivotal Game 5 on Wednesday night.
For the second straight game, the Celtics fell apart for a few minutes in the third quarter, and had to dig themselves out of a hole. But unlike Game 3, when their comeback was ultimately for naught, they finished the job. They outscored the Bucks 43-28 in the fourth quarter, and took the lead for good on an Al Horford 3-pointer with 5:40 remaining.
That was fitting as Horford played one of the best games of his career. He finished with 30 points on 11 of 14 from the field, eight rebounds and three assists to go with some stellar defense. Jayson Tatum, meanwhile, bounced back from a brutal Game 3 to put up 30 points, 13 rebounds and five assists.
Giannis Antetokounmpo led the way in defeat for the Bucks, finishing with 34 points, 18 rebounds and five assists. Brook Lopez chipped in 17 points, while Jrue Holiday added 16 points, seven rebounds and nine assists.
In honor of his first career 30-point playoff game, here are some key Al Horford takeaways from the game:
1. Horford's back and forth with Giannis
Early in the third quarter, Giannis got out in semi-transition and dropped a ferocious slam on Al Horford. In the aftermath, the Greek Freak had some words and emotion for the veteran big man, and was hit with a technical foul for taunting. On the replay, you can see Horford nodding his head and mouthing, "OK." It turned out he was plotting his revenge in that moment.
"I don't really know what he said to me," Horford said. "But the way he was looking at me and the way he was going about it really didn't sit well with me. At that point something switched with me."
A quarter later, Horford got his chance. With just under 10 minutes to play in the fourth, Horford pump-faked at the 3-point line and drove to the basket. As Giannis tried to recover, Horford dropped the hammer (and caught Giannis with an inadvertent flailing arm, resulting in his own technical). The normally reserved Horford let it all out, flexing and yelling with his teammates.
"Playoffs are emotional," Horford said. "They're intense. Tonight things weren't going our way. They were hard there in the third there for a while. [Marcus] Smart kept talking in the huddles. Just kept telling us to stay with it. Definitely just lot of emotions as that point, and that's what that was."
2. Horford's slam energizes teammates
Horford is the veteran on this Celtics team, and is often talked about as a calming presence -- someone who has been through it all and can help the team stay even-keel in difficult moments. And he did do that at various points early in the game on Monday night. But down the stretch he also played a much different role from an emotional standpoint.
When Horford put Giannis on a poster, it wasn't just an incredible highlight; it was an emotional lift for a team that had struggled to get anything going for nearly two full games in Milwaukee.
"Big play, obviously very emotional," Horford said. I think for our group it really got us going even more. ... There's not much to say. It's kind of contagious. Everybody feels it. I feel like it motivates everyone. When any of us have any of those type of plays. At that point you just want to keep it going."
While the Celtics had already fought back -- once the free throws were settled, that play tied the game at 81-81 -- they now had the energy to close the show. From that point on, the Celtics outscored the Bucks 35-27, and appeared to be the fresher team.
"Big-time play, big-time moment in a physical game," Marcus Smart said. "We've been on the other end of those a couple of times, so it felt good to have that one. Al still has it. We weren't surprised, but we were ecstatic. We needed it. We felt it. Everybody did. The energy changed once that happened from Al. It got him going and everybody else going."
3. Horford, Celtics take advantage of Bucks' defensive scheme
Much has been made about the Bucks' rim protection in this series, and for good reason. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez are perhaps the most fearsome interior tandem in the league, and together they have limited the Celtics to 124 paint points in the entire series.
That's impressive, but in order to keep the Celtics out of the paint, the Bucks concede 3-point shots. In Game 2, the Celtics took advantage to great effect, knocking down 20 3s en route to a blowout win. After going cold in Game 3, the Celtics once again found their form from behind the arc. They went 14 of 37, good for 37.8 percent.
Horford made five of them, going 5 of 7 for his best 3-point shooting game of the season. It was the first time he's made five 3s in a game since last January, and it came at a perfect time for the Celtics.
"Al, its like I said we know we can get him a certain shot every time," Celtics head coach Ime Udoka said. "I told him to be extremely aggressive. ... It's all series. They're guarding him a specific way. Any time you have Lopez that far back in drop you can literally run a pick-and-pop any time you want and get a wide open 3 at least."
The Celtics did run plenty of pick-and-pop, but they also used other tactics to get Horford open looks. At times he would spot up in the corner -- "we like to hide him in certain areas on the court," Udoka explained -- forcing Lopez into a no-win situation. If Lopez stayed attached to Horford, it would open up the rim, and if he went to protect the rim it would open up Horford.
Horford went a perfect 6 of 6 from the field in the fourth quarter, and that triple put the Celtics ahead for good.