On a night when both teams struggled to shoot — continuing a series-long trend — the Celtics shook off a slow start and rallied from an 11-point third-quarter deficit to claim a 116-108 victory in Game 4 at Fiserv Forum. Horford helped pull Boston back from the brink with 30 points, eight rebounds and three assists to even this slugfest of a second-round series at two games apiece.
Boston made everything look easy during its first-round sweep of the Brooklyn Nets; Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown picked apart the Nets’ porous defense, and the Celtics held Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in check for much of the series. But the Bucks have proved to be a much more challenging proposition on both ends. Antetokounmpo has punished the Celtics’ front line in a way Durant could not, while Tatum has often struggled to find a rhythm.
The Celtics boasted the NBA’s top-ranked defense during the regular season and a 17-5 record after the all-star break with active and unselfish play, but they have appeared flat in key moments against the Bucks. Boston opened on its heels in a Game 1 loss at home, then spent long stretches of a last-second Game 3 loss complaining to the officials. Instead of opening Game 4 with purpose, the Celtics fell into an early 8-2 hole as the Bucks pounded their interior defense with drives to the hoop.
Already struggling to handle Antetokounmpo’s physicality, Boston was dealt a tough blow when center Robert Williams was a late scratch due to left knee soreness. Williams, an athletic shot-blocker, underwent left knee surgery in March that sidelined him until midway through the Nets’ series. Antetokounmpo took advantage of Williams’s absence, finding high-percentage scoring opportunities in the paint and attacking Brown, who spent much of the second half in foul trouble. By night’s end, the Bucks had outrebounded the Celtics 48-38 and tallied 52 points in the paint.
But the Celtics managed to hang tough and eventually wear down the Bucks, who couldn’t conjure enough supporting offense for Antetokounmpo, who finished with a game-high 34 points, 18 rebounds and five assists. Milwaukee shot just 9 for 27 from beyond the arc, and its cold shooting opened the door for Boston’s comeback.
The 35-year-old Horford has long been a heady, steadying presence, but on Monday he showed a rare electric streak. Early in the fourth quarter, Horford threw down a poster dunk over Antetokounmpo that helped swing momentum in Boston’s favor.
The veteran big man followed that up with a series of clutch jumpers, scoring 16 fourth-quarter points as Milwaukee stalled on the other end. Horford made a season-high five three-pointers, taking advantage of the Bucks’ drop coverage, which concedes outside shots in favor of protecting the paint.
“We were all pretty pissed about the way we lost the last game,” Celtics Coach Ime Udoka said. “This is a series for [Horford] to be extra aggressive. He’s been great all year, but we really needed him to step up with guys being out. He took that on his shoulders.”
Tatum, who spent all of Game 3 and much of Game 4 struggling to find his shot against Bucks stopper Wesley Matthews, came alive in the closing minutes, scoring eight straight points to seal the victory. The three-time all-star finished with 30 points, 13 rebounds and five assists.
The Bucks, who for much of the night looked poised to take a commanding series lead, must regroup and find a way to lessen Antetokounmpo’s burden without forward Khris Middleton, who remains sidelined by a hamstring injury. Jrue Holiday scored 16 points but went just 5 for 22 from the field, and too often Milwaukee’s attack consisted of Antetokounmpo serving as both initiator and finisher.
“He never wants to come out,” Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer said of Antetokounmpo, who played a team-high 41 minutes. “We’ve got to help him. We’ve got to get him his rest. We’ve got to play well around him. He’ll be fine.”