Early within the second half of Recreation 4 of the Japanese Convention semifinals on Monday night time, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks star, rumbled down the ground and dunked the ball on Al Horford, the 35-year-old Boston Celtics middle who has been tasked with slowing down the two-time Most Helpful Participant Award winner.
The Bucks had all of the momentum within the sport and had been on the verge of placing the Celtics on the ropes within the sequence.
After which Antetokounmpo miscalculated. He adopted up his dunk by staring daggers at Horford and acquired a technical for taunting. Horford stared proper again, nodding his head a number of occasions.
“The best way he was taking a look at me and the best way that he was going about it actually didn’t sit properly with me,” Horford informed reporters after the sport. “And at that time I believe simply one thing switched with me.”
Horford turned in among the finest performances of his profession. He scored 16 of his 30 factors within the fourth quarter, carrying the Celtics to a 116-108 win that tied the sequence, 2-2.
Not less than two of his factors had been a little bit of payback immediately on Antetokounmpo: a dunk in the fourth quarter over the Bucks star that noticed the usually reserved Horford let loose a scream.
In Horford’s earlier 131 playoff video games, he had by no means scored 30 factors in a sport. In doing so, although, he could have saved the Celtics season.
“We love Al,” Celtics guard Marcus Good mentioned. “He’s the perfect vet we’ve ever had. Finest vet I’ve ever had. You recognize, he is available in and it by no means modifications with him. Issues going dangerous or good, he’s going to be him. 9 occasions out of 10, it’s going to work in our favor.”
Monday’s efficiency was made all of the extra exceptional by the truth that getting into the 2020-21 season, Horford was within the basketball wilderness.
He had simply completed a disappointing season with the Philadelphia 76ers after signing a contract value greater than $100 million. Horford, a five time All-Star, was offloaded to the rebuilding Oklahoma Metropolis Thunder, who had little use for getting old middle in his mid-30s. The Sixers needed to connect a first-round draft decide simply to get the Thunder to contemplate the deal. After which Horford was shut down in midseason. Not as a result of he was injured or taking part in that poorly. However as a result of he didn’t slot in Oklahoma Metropolis.
Brad Stevens, the brand new Celtics president, traded Kemba Walker, one other former All-Star with restricted productiveness lately, for Horford, a participant he had coached in Boston for 3 seasons from 2016 to 2019.
It was regarded as a low affect transfer. What might a past-his-prime, slow-moving middle present to a younger Celtics staff trying to get extra athletic?
Fairly a bit, it turned out. Horford began 69 video games for Boston in the course of the common season, serving to to anchor one of many league’s finest defenses. Within the first spherical in opposition to the Nets, Horford averaged 13 factors and seven.5 rebounds and shot 60 p.c on 3-pointers.
“I really feel like this previous summer season, I understood that I wanted to take it to even one other degree,” Horford mentioned. “We actually began with the summer season and simply continued in season. And now these are the moments that I need to be part of.”
His motivation, he added, was easy: “That’s from sitting at dwelling. That’s from watching the playoffs. That’s from not figuring out what my future was holding and actually simply hoping to have a chance to be in such a atmosphere.”
Towards the Bucks, Horford has been the first defender on Antetokounmpo. It’s a tougher matchup than one would possibly count on: Antetokounmpo can’t as simply bully Horford within the paint the best way he can most defenders. And Horford, even at this stage in his profession, is cellular sufficient to restrict Antetokounmpo from rushing previous him with lengthy strides.
Antetokounmpo scored 34 factors on Monday, however he wanted 32 photographs to get them.
Horford’s largest contribution, in the meantime, has been his capturing. On Monday, Horford made 5 of his 7 3-point makes an attempt. The remainder of the mixed to go 9 for 30. In a number of situations, Horford’s baskets got here when it appeared the Bucks had been on the verge of pulling away.
For the Celtics to win this sequence, they might want to proceed to hit their deep jumpers since they don’t seem to be getting constant entry to the basket due to the rim safety of Antetokounmpo, a former defensive participant of the 12 months, and Brook Lopez, the Bucks’ towering middle.
In Recreation 2, the Celtics shot 20 of 43 from behind the 3-point line — an distinctive 46.5 p.c. They gained the sport in a blowout. With Horford hitting his photographs in Recreation 4, the Celtics had been in a position to stretch the ground once more, and that allowed Jayson Tatum to search out extra room to navigate within the paint. He recovered from a dismal Recreation 3 to match Horford with 30 points on Monday, together with a number of key baskets down the stretch.
There stay some pink flags, although, for Boston within the sequence. Each of its wins have required unusual performances — unusually good 3-point capturing, and Horford’s brilliance in Recreation 4 — and the Bucks nonetheless have the perfect participant on both staff in Antetokounmpo.
Milwaukee, due to its dimension, additionally has been in a position to get into the lane extra simply. That produces a extra dependable offense, and it places stress on officers to name fouls.
And different Boston gamers might want to hit photographs. It’s unlikely that Horford, 35, will have the ability to sustain Monday’s tempo, both in capturing or scoring. And in most video games, if Horford is the perfect participant on a Boston staff with Tatum and Jaylen Brown, one thing is amiss.
Simply not Monday night time.
“Al, man,” Good mentioned, heaping much more reward on Horford. “He’s been doing this for a really very long time, and he understands what he brings to the sport and to the staff. And we want each final little bit of it each night time we will. So it’s an enormous, huge, huge, huge, huge, and I imply this, huge key, Al being with us.”