Early in the second half of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Monday night, Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmue landed and threw the ball at Al Horford, the 35-year-old Boston Celtics center tasked with slowing him down.
The Bucks had all the momentum in the game and were about to put the Celtics on the ropes in the series.
And then he missed Antetokounmpo, a two-time MVP winner. He continued his drowsiness by staring at daggers at Horford and receiving a tech for taunts. Horford stared at the right-back, nodded several times.
“The way he was looking at me and the way he was walking was not good for me,” Horford told reporters after the match. “And at that point, I think something has changed with me.”
Horford gave one of the best performances of his career. And he scored 16 of 30 points in the fourth quarter to carry the Celtics with a 116-108 win and a 2-2 tie for the series.
At least two of his points were a direct response to Antetokounmpo: Dipping in the fourth quarter Above the Bucks star who saw the normally booked Horford screeching.
In Horford’s previous 131 games, he had not scored 30 points in a single match. By doing that, he may have saved the Celtics’ season.
“We love Al, Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “He’s the best vet we’ve ever had. The best vet ever. You know, he comes and he never changes. Things are going badly or well, it will be him. Nine times out of 10, it will work for us.”. “
Monday’s performance was made even more special by the fact that Horford was in the 2020-21 season, and he was in the basketball wilderness.
He just finished a disappointing season with the Philadelphia 76ers after signing a contract worth over $100 million. Horford, a five-time All-Star, was transferred to the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder, which was of little use to the aging center in his mid-30s. The Sixers had to attach a first-round draft just to get Thunder to consider the deal. Then Horford was closed mid-season. Not because he was injured or played badly. But because he wasn’t fit in Oklahoma City.
New Celtics president Brad Stevens replaced Kemba Walker, another former All Star player with limited production in recent years, for Horford, a player he coached in Boston for three seasons from 2016 to 2019.
It was thought of as a low impact movement. What could a slow-moving center back in the day do for a young Celtics team looking to get a little more athletic?
Quite a bit, it turns out. Horford started 69 games for Boston in the regular season, helping cement one of the league’s best defenses. In the first round against the Nets, Horford averaged 13 points, 7.5 rebounds and hit 60 percent with three throws.
““I feel like last summer, I realized I needed to take it to another level,” Horford said. “We really started with the summer and continued the season. Now these are the moments I want to be a part of. “
He added that his motive was simple: “This is from sitting at home. This is from watching the playoffs. This is from not knowing what my future holds and I really hope to get a chance to be in that kind of environment.”
Against the Bucks, Horford was Antetokounmpo’s primary defender. It’s a more challenging match than one might expect: Antetokounmpo could not easily bully Horford into painting the way most defenders can. And Horford, even at this point in his career, is mobile enough to limit Antitoconmo from overtaking him by long strides.
Antetokonmo scored 34 points on Monday but needed 32 shots to get it.
Horford’s biggest contribution, from now on, was his shooting. On Monday, Horford made 5 of 7 3-point attempts. The rest of the team came together to pay 9 for 30. In several cases, Horford’s baskets came when it seemed like the dollars were about to walk away.
For the Celtics to win this series, they’ll need to keep hitting deep jumpers because they don’t get consistent access to basketball due to the edge protection of Antetokounmpo, a former defensive player of the year, and Brook Lopez, the Bucks’ towering center.
In Game 2, the Celtics shot 20 of 43 from behind the 3-point streak — an extraordinary 46.5 percent. They won the match in a blast. With Horford firing his shots in Game 4, the Celtics were able to extend the ground once more, allowing Jason Tatum to find more room to move around in the paint. He recovered from Horford’s dismal third game with 30 points on Monday, including several major baskets along the stretch.
There are still some red flags for Boston in the chain. Both of his victories required uncommon performances – an unusually good 3-point shot, Horford’s brilliance in Game 4 – and the Bucks still have the best player of either team in Antetokounmpo.
Milwaukee, due to its size, was also able to get into the driveway more easily. This results in a more reliable breach, and also puts pressure on administrators to report errors.
The other Boston players will need to strike. Horford, 35, is unlikely to be able to keep up with Monday’s pace, either in shooting or scoring. And in most games, if Horford is Boston’s best player with Tatum and Jaylene Brown, something is wrong.
Not just on Monday night.
“Smart said, directing more praise to Horford. “He’s been doing this for a very long time, and he understands what he brings to the game and the team. And we need every last bit of him every night we can. So he’s big, big, big, big, and I mean this, big key, being with us.”