MILWAUKEE — As the Bucks fans flooded toward the exits with 43 seconds remaining and the Celtics leading by 10, one stated the story of the game.
“We had that one.”
Al Horford stole it from the Bucks with the game of his career at 35, scoring his career playoff-high 30 points on 11-of-14 shooting with 16 coming in the fourth quarter, where he hit all six of his shot attempts. None will be remembered more than his pump-fake, drive and slam over Giannis Antetokounmpo with a follow-through that knocked the Bucks’ star to the ground. The three-point play tied the game at 81 after the Celtics trailed late by 10 points with two minutes remaining in the third quarter. Boston outscored Milwaukee 46-28 from that point on, winning Game 4, 116-108, and tying the series 2-2 heading back to Boston.
A switch flipped, Horford recalled, when Antetokounmpo stared him down following a running dunk past the Celtics’ big man to begin the third quarter. Horford mentioned not appreciating the way Antetokounmpo went about the moment post-game. He quickly fed Grant Williams in the corner, who drove for a dunk. Two plays later, Horford hit a pick-and-pop three from Jayson Tatum. Ime Udoka had noticed the Bucks playing off Horford, and the Celtics found their game plan and Horford the game of his life.
“All series, they’re guarding him a specific way,” Udoka told CLNS Media. Anytime you have Lopez that far in the drop, you can literally run a pick-and-pop anytime you want and get a wide open three at least. Understanding that, he gets in a rhythm, we try to get him downhill a little bit, give him some different looks and then when you see him going a little bit, we obviously have multiple sets we can get JT or JB going downhill against Lopez and always have that outlet to throw back to.”
Horford had similarly initiated a furious second-half comeback two days earlier in Game 3. He blocked Giannis, sent Jaylen Brown running for two on the fast break, hit a three, found Derrick White and Brown from behind the arc for six more, then hit and assisted Tatum on a pair of layups. With Horford playing in the middle on defense, the Celtics stormed back from down 13 points at the start of the quarter to within four after six minutes.
He barely missed a chance to force overtime following Marcus Smart’s intentional free throw miss, tipping a third-chance put back try in off the backboard one moment too late. Boston lost by two points following a controversial foul call on Jrue Holiday that awarded Smart two, rather than three, free throws trailing by three with four seconds remaining.
Horford sat at the podium after with his head bowed, largely silent while Smart sat to his right and explained the foul. Antetokounmpo had scored 42 points after Horford held him to 6-for-22 shooting in Boston. Tatum left the loss filled with regret over only scoring 10 points in such a narrow defeat. Various moments, whether a Williams and Antetokounmpo tie-up on the fast break, Bobby Portis pummeling Robert Williams III on the offensive glass, or Wes Matthews diving underneath White’s legs along the sideline, showcased a Milwaukee team able to physically irritate Boston.
“I played terrible Game 3,” Tatum said. “And we almost had a chance to win. That was really the toughest part, just knowing that. So I was just really eager to get back and ready to play, and whether it was scoring or not, just coming out and playing better on both ends of the floor and doing what I can to help us get a win.”
Williams III missed the game with left knee soreness related to his meniscus surgery, an ominous sign from the jump. Tatum struggled again early, scoring four points in his first nine minutes. Williams got called for a moving screen and Tatum for pushing off on Matthews unable to get free on separate pick tries by White and Horford.
Smart blew up on Williams into a timeout for failing to pick up Grayson Allen on a fast break. Boston turned the ball over five times, gave up six offensive rebounds and shot 8-for-22. Somehow, the Celtics only trailed by seven points.
Screening became an emphasis at practice the day before, Udoka stressing the need to make the game easier for Tatum. Horford answered the call, setting a season-high 28 screens leading to 41 points, according to Kevin O’Connor.
“Obviously Al was playing extremely well, shooting the ball well. So obviously look for him after the timeouts,” Tatum told CLNS. “Just throughout the course of that fourth quarter, we were kind of just playing basketball, and the ball was just finding him and he was making the right play knocking down shots … Al, he’s a competitor. He wants it as bad as anybody and he showed it tonight.”
They also spread the floor in smaller lineups through the middle of the game, White tipping out an offensive rebound to Williams for a second chance three, Payton Pritchard feeding Horford in the pick-and-pop and giving the Celtics a brief lead, 34-33, in the second quarter. The Celtics ended the half within one point despite offensive woes, but foul trouble mounted.
Antetokounmpo handed Brown his fourth personal early in the third driving downhill. With Milwaukee sneaking away scoring six straight points, Tatum kept pace by chasing down a Horford three-point miss, slapping it away from Antetokounmpo to score inside. Milwaukee couldn’t build any lead larger than 11 points, scoring two points at a time hitting only 33.3% from three. Antetokounmpo had to carry the offense, putting his head down for three straight baskets at the rim and handing Williams his fifth foul.
Brown checked back in for less than two minutes, hitting a pair of jumpers and driving into Holiday for what originally got called as the Bucks guard’s fourth foul. Mike Budenholzer challenged the call and sent Brown back to the bench with five fouls with over 13 minutes to play.
Despite missing three front court players and withstanding an Antetokounmpo run, Udoka and the players looked up in the timeout and saw they still had a chance. They only needed to string together one quality quarter. They’d get their best offensive one all year, shooting 16-for-19 and dropping 43 points on the Bucks’ defense.
“We felt like we didn’t play all that well,” Tatum said. “And despite all that, we were still only down seven to start the fourth and that was the message. 12 minutes left down seven, figure it out.”
The Celtics had to go small again, and shut off the Bucks’ offense, forcing them to miss seven of their next eight shots into the fourth quarter. Smart hit a three from White, who checked in for Brown after Horford hit a mid-range jumper into the fourth quarter.
Then, Smart hit Horford in the right wing, who pump faked, drove past Antetokounmpo, flushed a baseline slam and sent Giannis stumbling to the floor. Officials handed Horford a technical foul for the follow-through, but Boston’s veteran had already invigorated his team that needed to punch back. He walked to the huddle slamming every hand he could find with his own. Antetokounmpo, laying on the floor, looked exhausted.
“If you ever watch any of his highlights, he pump fakes and drives the ball to the basket,” Larry Turnbow, Horford’s old trainer and mentor told me last month. “That’s a move he picked up, he never used it in college, but that’s his pro move. Pump fake and you’ll hear the announcers say, ‘he’s only used that move 100 times. Don’t fall for the pump fake.’ But they fall for the pump fake. What that does, it gets your alignment. It gets that elbow inside and all the rest of it. They’re trying to run Al off the line once he starts hitting that (shot), but that pump fake will freeze them.”
Boston scored seven straight points after and took a lead on another pick-and-pop three from Horford, who’s now shooting 53.5% from three in the playoffs on 43 tries. The Bucks responded with four straight baskets, running a missed Pritchard corner three back to get their own from Pat Connaughton and go ahead 92-90. Tatum and Antetokounmpo traded baskets inside, Horford hit another three, then with five minutes remaining the Celtics’ defense collapsed and stopped Antetokounmpo and Lopez’ follow try.
Antetokounmpo and Smart stumbled to the floor as Horford rushed up the floor, caught a pass in the high post and scored through a foul. As Smart tried to help Giannis up, couldn’t hoist him and waved his arm toward the star, leaving him on the ground.
“We’re tangled up, I’m trying to help him up,” Smart said. “He’s doing a good job of making sure I don’t get back into the play by holding me down. You can see he kicked me in my face with his foot, and then when I tried to help him up he’d throw his head down. Then he’d put his hand up to help me, then when I tried to help he’d take it back. So I was like, ‘you know what, I’m done. I tried. I’m not finna keep playing this game with you dude.'”
Antetokounmpo needed a moment, checking out for George Hill with five minutes remaining. Tatum’s eyes widened. He drove past Hill for a layup, hit a short-range jumper over him through the foul after Giannis caught 50 seconds of rest, but it was too late.
Tatum hit a pull-up three and the game was over.
“Al man. He’s been doing this for a very long time,” Smart said. “I wasn’t surprised at all. I wasn’t surprised at all. It was a big time play, big time moment in a physical game. We’d been on the other end of those a couple of times. So it felt good to have that one. Al still has it. At this age, he’s still able to get up like he does. We weren’t surprised, but we were ecstatic for it and we needed it, but we felt it. Everybody did. The energy changed once that happened.”