Al Horford thanked God, because in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals, he was touched.
Two years after leaving the Boston Celtics in free agency, the former Horford team gave him another chance, reclaiming the contracts of the Philadelphia 76ers and Oklahoma City Thunder in the meantime. The 15-year-old veteran repaid every cent with a 30-point playoff that saved the Celtics season and gave him another chance with a team that has led to consecutive NBA Conference Finals in a lifetime.
Facing the prospect of a 3-1 series deficit against the MVP and defending champion, Horford scored 16 points on a 6-of-6 shot in a stunning comeback in the final quarter that brought Boston a second-round MVP with two-time MVP. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee Bucks tied 2-2.
Another drawback in a playoff career filled with them Horford stared at him. A minute into the third quarter, Antetokounmpo dipped in Horford and looked him in the eye, earning a technical foul for being mocked. Horford had tied for the toughest defensive job in the league once Robert Williams III had a late injury scratch and Grant Williams himself got into serious trouble, and Antetokounmue was abusing the old man.
Horford only nodded in response and said loudly, “Okay,” as if he was celebrating the moment.
“I don’t know what he said to me, but the way he was looking at me and the way he was acting wasn’t really good,” Horford told reporters, “and at that point something turned on me.”
Milwaukee’s lead swelled to 76-65 with 15:13 remaining for Antetokounmpo’s thirteenth point in the third quarter. Antetokounmo scored 28 points and 16 rebounds, compared to 14 and Horford’s five points at that point. The season was slipping away. So, Horford’s last chance in the ring may have been another, too. The final year of the $109 million deal he signed in 2019 is not entirely guaranteed next season, nor is Boston’s path to the Finals.
So, a month into his 36th birthday, Horford went to work in the fourth quarter against the most dominant force since Shaquille O’Neal and clinched a 116-108 victory. At the 10 minute mark, he drove around Antetokounmpo, dunked over and complimented him, inadvertently earning the Bucks star and earning his technical foul. The match was tied for the first time since the last minute of the second quarter.
“Man, we love Al,” said Celtics teammate Marcus Smart. “He’s the best vet I’ve ever had.”
“A lot of 35-year-olds can’t play that way,” Antetokounmue, 27, said of Horford in his post-match press conference. “Hopefully we’ll be lucky when we’re in his position, and when we get older we’re still in the league and can still compete at the highest level. That’s the goal. He’s playing great, which is why. He’s still in the game. Always give credit when Balance due.
Horford did not finish serving the sentence. His triple pointer eight minutes before the end of the game gave Boston their first lead in the second half, 88-85. Milwaukee didn’t give up, cracking the lead, so Horford found Jason Tatum to throw the ball and tied halfway through the fourth. Horford dug another 3 to offer the next possession. He and another one after 30 seconds gave the Celtics a lead with two possessions they wouldn’t give up.
“I remember coming in my New Year and seeing Horford,” said Tatum, the 24-year-old rising star who scored 30 points on his own. “I’ve seen him play all my life. … He has helped me a lot in the three years we have played together, and I am very, very lucky to be able to call a teammate.”
Horford lay on the field after holding out a final blow and watching the ball find the net in his only 30-point game in four seasons at the Celtics. Tatum tapped his chest, as if to revive Horford, who was given another basketball. He has two wins over the team that finished his last serving round in green and 10 NBA immortals, as the championship would secure his place in the Hall of Fame.
“I am really grateful for this opportunity,” said the five-time All-Star. “…this is from sitting at home [last year]. This is from watching the playoffs. This is from not knowing what my future holds.”
The Bucks are hell to play, but Al Horford can see the light.
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Ben Rohrbach is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Do you have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach