Celtics’ Horford turns back the clock and the Bucks

Early in the second half of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Monday night, Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo rolled down the court and sank the ball into Boston Celtics center Al Horford. 35-year-old who was tasked with slowing down the two-time Most Valuable Player Award winner.

The Bucks had all the momentum of the game and came close to putting the Celtics on the ropes in the series.

And then Antetokounmpo miscalculated. He continued his dunk by throwing daggers at Horford and received a technique for taunting. Horford returned her gaze, nodding several times.

“The way he was looking at me and the way he was doing it didn’t really sit well with me,” Horford told reporters after the game. “And at that moment I think something changed with me.”

Horford delivered one of the best performances of his career. He scored 16 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter, leading the Celtics to a 116-108 victory that tied the series, 2-2.

At least two of his points were a bit of revenge directly on Antetokounmpo: a dunk in the fourth quarter about the Bucks star who saw the typically reserved Horford let out a scream.

In Horford’s previous 131 postseason games, he had never scored 30 points in a game. However, by doing so, he may have saved the Celtics’ season.

We love Al,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “He is the best vet we have ever had. The best vet I have ever had. You know, he walks in and never changes with him. Things go wrong or right, he’s going to be him. Nine times out of 10, he’s going to work in our favor..”

Monday’s performance was made even more remarkable by the fact that, entering the 2020-21 season, Horford was in the wilderness of basketball.

He had just finished a disappointing season with the Philadelphia 76ers after signing a contract worth more than $100 million. Horford, a five-time All-Star, was traded to the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder, which had little use for the aging center in his 30s. The Sixers had to attach a first-round pick just for the Thunder to consider the deal. And then Horford was shut down in the middle of the season. Not because he was injured or playing so poorly. But because he didn’t fit in in Oklahoma City.

Brad Stevens, the new Celtics president, traded Kemba Walker, another former All-Star with limited productivity in recent years, for Horford, a player he had coached in Boston for three seasons from 2016 to 2019.

It was thought to be a low-impact move. What could a slow-moving center past his prime provide to a young Celtics team looking to become more athletic?

Quite a lot, it turned out. Horford started 69 games for Boston during the regular season, helping build one of the best defenses in the league. In the first round against the Nets, Horford averaged 13 points and 7.5 rebounds and shot 60 percent from 3-point range.

I feel like last summer, I understood that I needed to take it to another level,” Horford said. “We really start with the summer and continue into the season. And now these are the moments I want to be a part of.”

His motivation, he added, was simple: “That’s from sitting at home. That is to see the playoffs. That’s because I didn’t know what the future held for me and I really just hoped I’d get the opportunity to be in this kind of environment.”

Against the Bucks, Horford has been Antetokounmpo’s main defender. It’s a more challenging matchup than you’d expect: Antetokounmpo can’t intimidate Horford in the paint as easily as he can most defenders. And Horford, even at this stage of his career, is mobile enough to keep Antetokounmpo from striding past him.

Antetokounmpo scored 34 points on Monday, but needed 32 shots to get them.

Meanwhile, Horford’s biggest contribution has been his shooting. On Monday, Horford made 5 of 7 3-point attempts from him. The rest of the team went 9-for-30. In several instances, Horford’s baskets came when it looked like the Bucks were about to walk away.

For the Celtics to win this series, they will need to continue shooting their deep shots as they don’t have consistent access to the basket due to the rim protection of former Bucks Defensive Player of the Year Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez, the Bucks. ‘ towering center.

In Game 2, the Celtics shot 20 of 43 from behind the 3-point line, an exceptional 46.5 percent. They won the game in a blowout. With Horford hitting his shots in Game 4, the Celtics were able to stretch the floor again, and that allowed Jayson Tatum to find more room to navigate in the paint. He bounced back from a lousy Game 3 to match Horford with 30 points on Monday, including several key baskets down the stretch.

However, there are a few red flags left for Boston in the series. Their two wins have required rare performances, unusually good 3-point shooting and Horford’s Game 4 brilliance, and the Bucks still have the best player on any team in Antetokounmpo.

Milwaukee, because of its size, has also been able to get into the lane more easily. That produces a more reliable offense and puts pressure on referees to call fouls.

And other Boston players will need to make shots. The 35-year-old Horford is unlikely to be able to keep up with Monday’s pace, either in shooting or scoring. And in most games, if Horford is the best player on a Boston team with Tatum and Jaylen Brown, something is wrong.

But not Monday night.

Al, man,” Smart said, praising Horford further. “He has been doing this for a long time and understands what he brings to the game and to the team. And we need every last bit of it every night that we can. So he’s a big, big, big, big, big, and I mean this, big key, being with us.”

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