MILWAUKEE — The typically stoic Al Horford couldn’t stop flexing towards Milwaukee fans, while Giannis Antetokounmpo lay on the ground at the Fiserv Forum after inadvertently eating a left arm in the face when the future 36-year-old Horford threw a a thunderous, unlikely fourth-quarter slam against the former NBA MVP to tie Game 4 of an Eastern Conference Semifinals series.
At this time, the Al Horford game was born. At the moment, it sits somewhere behind The Kelly Olynyk Game in scale and improbability, but much of what happens next could elevate it quickly.
It looked as if the Celtics had ruined a potential Horford game two days earlier when they lost a lead in the final minute of a Game 3 loss. With Boston’s season on life support as the Bucks extended their lead into double digits in the second half of Game 4 and the C’s were foul-ridden, Horford refused to let this season slip away.
Motivated by Antetokounmpo’s trash talk midway through the third quarter, Horford burst for 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting in the second half. He made a trio of 3-pointers in key moments, but it was the dunk that could soon linger among the Celtics’ iconic playoff moments depending on what happens the rest of this series and the playoffs. .
Working a bit of pick-and-pop with Marcus Smart, Horford watched Antetokounmpo jiggle up close to prevent a 3-point attempt. He didn’t pull himself out of a cannon — again, he’s 35 — but with Paul Pierce’s vintage, how-he-moves-that-quick vibes, Horford attacked the baseline and delivered right-handed color.
Horford was assessed a technique for the forearm; Antetokounmpo was whistled for committing a foul on the dunk. The streak left the game tied at 81, but Boston would soon race for a 116-108 triumph that would send the series to a tied TD Garden at 2-2.
What to remember from the Celtics-Bucks: “Playoff Al” takes over in Game 4
No one could have imagined that when Brad Stevens dealt Kemba Walker and a first-round pick to Oklahoma City in exchange for Horford a year ago. The Celtics asked Horford to increase salary cap flexibility and swallowed the pick because Horford’s familiarity with Boston’s key elements raised hopes he could turn the clocks back a bit.
But not like this.
Horford, who apparently struggled to stay on his feet at the end of his first Celtics come-around of 2019 due to heavy knees, looked incredibly lively, while the 27-year-old MVP on the other side was leaning d exhaustion by the end of game 4.
The Celtics needed a jolt and Horford gave it to them. Boston was playing without Horford’s front-row partner Robert Williams after being eliminated late with left knee pain. Jaylen Brown was benched for part of the second half due to foul issues. Jayson Tatum bounced back from a Game 3 clunker, but it was still Horford who dominated the game when it mattered most.
And, in typical Horford fashion, he ignored the absurdity of the dunk and his night.
“Usually I just mind my own business,” Horford said, when peppered with questions about the last time he had this much emotion. “And I’m excited, but I guess you sort of pick your spots, your moments. And it was an emotional game.
You can tell how much this all means to Horford. It’s been a bumpy ride since leaving Boston in 2019. He was most blamed when the Sixers fell apart after joining them. Horford spent much of the next season on the sidelines at Oklahoma City, but it rejuvenated his body and put him in a position to thrive in Boston.
Still, there were no guarantees on how it would work here. Horford, aided by familiarity with freshman coach Ime Udoka from their time together in Philadelphia, quickly established himself as a starter and was instrumental in Boston’s emergence as the NBA’s top defense. this season.
The Celtics have been cautious with his health this season and the payoff is that Horford is playing his best basketball despite 78 games on the clock this year. After nurturing that core during his first stint in Boston, Horford was only expected to play a supporting role in this playoff series.
Instead, he was the headliner for Game 4.
“Al was great for the team. Al was great for me,” said Tatum, who harnessed some of Horford’s energy to finish Game 4 strong. “I was lucky enough to pay with Al for three years and I remember coming in my rookie year and seeing Al Horford. I saw him play my whole life, and it was great to see someone one taking care of one’s body, just being the ultimate professional, the ultimate teammate, and pretty much the good stuff.
“No one can ever say anything about Al, and he helped me a lot in the three years we played together. I’m very lucky and blessed to be able to call Al a teammate.”
And this dunk?
“I mean, it was a hell of a game,” Tatum said. “Especially every time Al goes back in time and looks like himself on those dunks, everybody comes off the bench. And Al plays with so much passion. When Al plays with passion like that, everyone has to follow.
In the crowd behind the Boston bench, Horford’s father, Tito, who played two seasons in Milwaukee, beamed with pride as he watched his son. Tito was one of the first to greet his son as he left the pitch following his post-match TV interview and you can tell the 56-year-old father was swollen with pride.
There is still work to be done to ensure The Al Horford Game earns a high place in Celtics lore. Boston stole home-court advantage, however, and two of the potential final three games in this series will be at TD Garden.
With teams playing every other day, it will be difficult for Horford to maintain a high level of play. But he defied expectations at every turn. Grant Williams can’t stop talking about how Horford plays more like he’s 28 than 35. And Horford continues to prove it by putting up stat lines that weren’t even achievable during the height of his NBA heyday.
“Al is – man, we love Al,” Marcus Smart said. “He’s one of the best vets we’ve ever had. The best vet I’ve ever had. He comes in and it never changes with him. Things go wrong or else he’ll be him and, nine times out of 10, it will turn out in our favour, so we needed him badly, and he did a lot for us and helped us get this victory tonight.
Smart rarely hides his emotions. But he admitted it’s rarer to see those emotions from Horford.
“It’s not often. But when we see it, it’s a sight to behold and we love it,” Smart said. “We need more…Al is going to be him, and that’s why we love him.”