5 takeaways from Celtics’ series-tying Game 4 victory at Milwaukee

Al Horford looked like his former All-Star self and turned this series into a best-of-three affair.

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MILWAUKEE – Five takeaways from the Boston Celtics’ 116-108 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 4 Monday at Fiserv Forum to even their Eastern Conference semifinal series at 2-2.

1. Father Time raises a glass to Al Horford

Al Horford is the kind of player Marcus Smart wants to be when he grows up. He’s also the guy Giannis Antetokounmpo may see in his dreams for a while, and not in a good way.

Boston’s veteran big man, near the end of his 15th NBA season and three weeks shy (June 3) of his 36th birthday, chose Game 4 for arguably the best performance of his career. He scored 30 points with eight rebounds, hitting five of his seven 3-pointers and shooting 11-for-14 overall. The Celtics were plus-20 in the 41:36 he played, while minus-12 in the 6:24 he was on the bench.

As if that wasn’t enough, Horford got the better of Antetokounmpo in a duel of dramatic, driving dunks, not just answering the Bucks star at the rim, but basically turning around the game.

Antetokounmpo went first early in the second half, throwing down and mean-mugging Horford blatantly enough to get a technical foul from referee Tony Brothers. Horford normally is a cool customer, but his pride had to (and did) kick in at that moment.

“I didn’t make out what he said,” Horford said later of Antetokounmpo’s glare. “But the way he looked at me didn’t sit well with me. That got me going.”

Ya think? Horford was hurting the Bucks plenty but Milwaukee opened up an 80-70 lead late in the third and was up seven to start the fourth. That’s when opportunity knocked for Horford. He got the ball on the right wing and had a step on Antetokounmpo, just enough to slam on the Bucks star while getting fouled. He added a smack in the Greek Freak’s face on his way down, then followed with a primal holler and muscle-flexing hardly anyone could recall seeing from the normally placid Horford.

“Not often,” Celtics teammate Marcus Smart said. “But when he do, it’s a sight to see.”

Al Horford had a Playoff career-high with 30 points to lead the Celtics to the Game 4 win.

Horford got a technical foul, but completed the and-1 play. Better still for Boston, the points boosted it into an 81-81 tie. When Horford drained a three with 8:01 left, he capped an 18-5 run and the Celtics were up 88-85. He added six points a little later to make it 98-94, then yielded the scoring chores to Jayson Tatum to snuff Milwaukee’s hopes.

Speaking of hope, that’s where Horford got the wherewithal to do what he did, when he did it. In the summer of 2019, he left Boston for a four-year, $109 million contract in Philadelphia that looked to be one of those deals too good for the player – it made him ballast on the salary cap and made it nearly impossible for him to return equal value.

After one season, the Sixers exiled him in a trade to Oklahoma City, and the rebuilding Thunder had no use for a veteran still hungry to win. Horford finished out the final 28 games of the 2020-21 season on the inactive list.

He got his reprieve in June when OKC sent him to Boston for youth and draft picks. Horford took an inventory of his game and fitness, dedicated himself to getting in peak shape at age 35 and quietly vowed to seize the opportunities he had left.

“That’s from sitting at home,” he said late Monday. “That’s from watching the playoffs. That’s from not knowing what my future was holding and really just hoping I would have an opportunity to be here now in this type of moment.”

Here’s some perspective on what Horford did in Game 4: Of all playoff performers who have scored 30 points or more, no one ever waited until his 132nd postseason game to do it. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Clifford Robinson did it after logging 90 playoff appearances.

2. Tatum bounced all the way back

Tatum stunk up Fiserv Forum in Game 3, missing 15 of his 19 shots and all six from the arc on a night when the Celtics needed just three more points to win. He said later he was thinking too much. But that wasn’t a problem Monday when the All-Star forward flexed some serious short-term memory.

That ugly performance was out of sight, out of mind as Tatum matched Horford’s 30 points, adding 13 rebounds and five assists. He took over what his older frontcourt mate started in the fourth, scoring nine straight points down the stretch – including a goofy scoop shot as he fell forward to make it 108-99 – to fend off the Bucks.

Tatum finished with 12 points in the quarter. He benefited, no doubt, from Wesley Matthews’ foul trouble this time, but also from his teammate’s lead.

“Al played with so much passion,” Tatum said. “When Al’s playing with passion like that, everybody has to follow.”

3. Defense might not be fun but it’s impressive.

The way the Celtics and the Bucks played defense in Game 4, you didn’t mind the missed shots, the turnovers, the shot-clock flirtations by hurried-up offenses. At least, you shouldn’t have. For three quarters, at least, this was part mosh pit, part clinic in disrupting elite NBA passers and scorers.

Heading into the final 12 minutes, Boston was shooting 40% and had made only 10 of its 32 attempts from deep. The Bucks were worse at 39.4% and 6-for-21 on threes. Moving the ball, finding seams, cracking open a lane to the rim, all of it looked grueling. This was defense at a playoff level, stinginess as a source of pride.

Boston has not been afraid to receive or return physical play.

Both teams slipped in the fourth quarter, but the Celtics…less so. Several Boston players said they noticed how gassed their Milwaukee counterparts seemed as the Bucks’ lead shriveled, then vanished altogether. The home team scored 28 points in that quarter, shooting 11-for-23. But Boston darn near exploded, missing only three of its 19 shots, scoring 43 and even hanging seven fast-break points on the Bucks to secure the outcome.

In the middle of it all was Smart, recently crowned as the NBA’s Kia Defensive Player of the Year. He was a pest and a saboteur, while keeping his Boston teammates engaged and aggressive.

“He just kept talking to us in the huddles, telling us to stay with it,” Horford said. “I was extremely proud of him. He showed tonight why he was Defensive Player of the Year. The number that he did in guarding Giannis, guarding Jrue [Holiday], just taking the challenge. He was unreal. For me, that was the game changer.”

4. Is the Bucks’ khavalry khoming?

That would be Khris Middleton, Milwaukee’s All-Star forward sidelined since he sprained his left knee in the first round against the Chicago Bulls. The smooth, resourceful scorer was missed more than ever Monday, as a floor spacer and offensive priority to limit some of Holiday’s relentless yo-yoing of the basketball. The point guard’s workload has made him the least efficient player on the floor, as demonstrated by his 5-for-22 shooting for 16 points this time.

Brook Lopez had an opportunistic 17 points. Bobby Portis was a disappointment with four points in 15 minutes, so much so he took to the court at Fiserv after the game to get up shots. The last status update the Bucks gave on Middleton was a “we’ll see” from coach Mike Budenholzer before the series shifted to Milwaukee for Game 3.

If that doesn’t upgrade to “we’ll see him” in this series, the Bucks and their fans might not need to see Middleton until autumn.

5. Two out of three – and it might take all three.

There have been enough bumps, bruises and slights to generate some real rancor between these teams. Antetokounmpo’s refusal to accept Smart’s offer of a hand up after both had fallen (and the Greek Freak pinned down Smart a little longer with a leg hold) was a good example of how tired they’re getting of each other.

Home-court advantage has been restored to the second-seeded Celtics, leaving the Bucks needing to win again at TD Garden at least once. Beyond Derrick White, Boston got nothing off its bench Monday and got outscored 22-11. But that has a way of flipping when the role players get comfortable at home.

Boston’s swagger seems to be restored, and center Robert Williams III is expected back from the left knee soreness that sidelined him from Game 4. The Bucks are two defeats away from failing to defend their 2021 NBA title, a full two rounds shy of the Finals. Tempers and nerves seem ready to fray the longer this goes.

And then there’s Antetokounmpo, offering some perspective that might get lost on game nights. “Emotions are for movies,” the Bucks star said, “not for basketball.”

Anyone buying that?

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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