MILWAUKEE — The Celtics’ season could not have officially ended on Monday night, but it certainly seemed to be veering in that direction.
All of those months of momentum, all of that promise, all of that hope, were on the verge of being erased by this Bucks team that has reminded everyone why it won the NBA title last year.
The Celtics had spent the past two days stewing over their near miss in Game 3 of these conference semifinals, determined not to let it happen again. But then it started happening again.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Jaylen Brown was on the bench with five fouls, Robert Williams was sidelined with a knee injury, All-Star forward Jayson Tatum was scuffling, Milwaukee had a 7-point lead, and Fiserv Forum was shaking.
It was enough to rattle a team that appeared to be on the brink of collapse, but Al Horford, who turns 36 next month, has been around far too long and seen far too much to let that happen.
So he walked back onto the court and pummeled Milwaukee with the most powerful fourth quarter of his playoff career, pulling the Celtics back from the edge and guiding them to a 116-108 win that tied the series, 2-2.
In the fourth quarter, Horford was 6 for 6 from the field and scored 16 of his playoff career-high 30 points. The most memorable moment came when he drove the baseline on Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and threw down a powerful one-handed dunk as he was fouled.
Horford took several steps toward the crowd and flexed and yelled, and had clearly not forgotten the second quarter, when Antetokounmpo dunked on Horford and was called for a technical foul for letting him know about it.
“I don’t really know what he said to me, but the way that he was looking at me and the way he was going about it really didn’t sit well with me,” Horford said. “And I think at that point, something switched with me in the game.”
Although Horford certainly saved the Celtics, he had help during that near-perfect fourth. Boston made 16 of 19 shots, 4 of 5 3-pointers, 7 of 7 free throws, and outscored Milwaukee, 43-28.
Two nights earlier, the frenetic comeback had fallenshort when Horford’s game-tying tip-in came just after the final buzzer. But this powerful surge ensured that there would be no need to test fate.
“We looked at the score down 7 going into the fourth and said, ‘We haven’t played that well at all, honestly. Let’s have a big fourth quarter,’” coach Ime Udoka said, “And we did that.”
After Horford staked the Celtics to a small lead, Tatum, who had been in the midst of another challenging game, took care of the rest.
He poured in 10 points over a 98-second stretch, the final 2 coming on a layup with 2:59 left that gave Boston a 108-99 lead that was never in danger after that.
Tatum was 5 of 6 from the field in the fourth and finished with 30 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists.
“I still had 12 minutes left to put my mark on this game and try to help us win,” he said. “I’m a big believer in good or bad, whatever just happened, you can’t change it.”
Antetokounmpo had 34 points, 18 rebounds, and 5 assists, but he also appeared flustered at times, and the lack of support without injured All-Star forward Khris Middleton continues to be glaring.
Jrue Holiday is usually this team’s dependable third option, but he was just 5 for 22 and the Bucks were outscored by 23 points during his 40 minutes, 54 seconds on the floor.
Celtics guard Marcus Smart was responsible for plenty of those struggles, and he even took his turns battling Antetokounmpo. And during timeouts, even as Boston fell behind by 11 in the second half, Smart was the loud, optimistic, voice, telling his teammates that they were going to find a way.
“He showed tonight why he was the Defensive Player of the Year,” Horford said. “Just the number that he did in guarding Giannis, guarding Jrue, just taking the challenge. He was unreal. Probably people aren’t talking about that enough. But he was just, for me, that was the game-changer. He was unbelievable.”
Milwaukee has scraped out two wins in this series, but through four games the Celtics have provided more evidence that they are the superior team. They’ll get a chance to go home to Boston, where a lively TD Garden crowd will be waiting on Wednesday, and prove it, but they also showed on Monday that they are fine operating in a different time zone, too.
“That’s who we are,” Smart said. “The physicality, the adversity, the hostile environment. We’ve been doing this all year and we’ve been thriving in it. We feel very comfortable in it and that’s what it is. We felt like we were at home.”