Why the 'Al Horford Game' could go down in Celtics playoff history

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Forsberg: 'The Al Horford Game' earns spot in Celtics playoff lore originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

MILWAUKEE -- The typically stoic Al Horford couldn’t stop flexing toward the Milwaukee fans, while Giannis Antetokounmpo laid prone on the floor at Fiserv Forum after eating an inadvertent left arm to the face when the soon-to-be 36-year-old Horford flushed a thunderous and improbable fourth-quarter slam over the former NBA MVP to tie Game 4 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series.

In that moment, the Al Horford Game was born. At the moment, it slots somewhere behind The Kelly Olynyk Game in magnitude and improbability, but so much of what happens next could elevate it quickly.

It felt as though the Celtics had spoiled a potential Horford Game two days earlier when they fumbled away a lead in the final minute of a gut-punch Game 3 loss. With Boston’s season on life support as the Bucks stretched their lead to double digits in the second half of Game 4 and the C's beset by foul trouble, Horford refused to let this season slip away.

Motivated by Antetokounmpo’s trash talk midway through the third quarter, Horford erupted 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 soon might linger among iconic Celtics playoff moments depending on what happens the remainder of this series and the postseason.

Working a little pick-and-pop with Marcus Smart, Horford watched Antetokounmpo shimmy up close to prevent a 3-point attempt. He didn’t fire himself out of a cannon -- again, he’s 35 years old -- but with vintage Paul Pierce how-is-he-moving-this-quickly vibes, Horford attacked the baseline and delivered the righthanded flush.

Horford was assessed a technical for the forearm; Antetokounmpo got a whistle for fouling him on the dunk. The sequence left the game tied at 81, but Boston would soon race away for a 116-108 triumph that sends the series back to TD Garden knotted at 2-2.

Celtics-Bucks takeaways: 'Playoff Al' takes over in Game 4

No one could have envisioned this when Brad Stevens dealt Kemba Walker and a first-round pick to Oklahoma City in exchange for Horford a year ago. The Celtics made the move for Horford to increase salary cap flexibility and swallowed hard on the pick because Horford’s familiarity with Boston’s key pieces gave hope that he could turn back the clocks a bit.

But not like this.

Horford, who seemingly struggled to stay upright at the end of his first Celtics go-around in 2019 because of miles-heavy knees, has looked impossibly spry, while the 27-year-old MVP on the other side was hunched over in exhaustion by the end of Game 4.

The Celtics needed a jolt and Horford gave it to them. Boston was playing without Horford’s frontcourt partner Robert Williams after he was a late scratch due to left knee soreness. Jaylen Brown was glued to the bench for part of the second half due to foul trouble. 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 shrugged off the absurdity of the dunk and his night.

Celtics Talk: "The Al Horford Game" - Celtics stun Bucks to tie series | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

"I usually just kind of just kind of go about my business,” said Horford, when peppered with questions about the last time he got showed that much emotion. "And I do get excited, but I guess you kind of pick your spots, your moments. And this was an emotional game.”

You can tell how much this all means to Horford. It’s been a bumpy ride since he left Boston in 2019. He drew the brunt of the blame when the Sixers fizzled after he joined them. Horford spent much of the following season on the sideline in Oklahoma City but it rejuvenated his body and put him in a position to thrive in Boston.

Still, there were no guarantees about how it would work here. Horford, aided by familiarity with first-year coach Ime Udoka from their time together in Philadelphia, quickly asserted himself as a starter and was instrumental in Boston emerging as the NBA’s best defense this season.

The Celtics treaded cautiously with his health this season and the reward is Horford playing his best basketball despite 78 games on the odometer this year. After nurturing this core during his initial Boston stint, Horford was supposed to play just a supporting role in this playoff run.

Instead, he was the headliner in Game 4.

The best vet I’ve ever had.

Marcus Smart on Al Horford

"Al’s been great for the team. Al’s been great for me,” said Tatum, who rode some of Horford’s energy to finish Game 4 strong. "I’ve been fortunate enough to pay with Al for three years and I remember coming in my rookie year and seeing Al Horford. I’ve been seeing him play my whole life, and it was great to see somebody taking care of their body, just be the ultimate professional, the ultimate teammate, and just all about the right things.

"Nobody can ever say anything about Al, and he’s helped me a great deal in the three years we’ve played together. I’m very lucky and fortunate to be able to call Al a teammate."

Jayson Tatum: "Very lucky to have Al Horford as my teammate"

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And that dunk?

"I mean, that was a hell of a play,” said Tatum. "Especially any time Al turns back the clock and look like his old self on those dunks, it gets everybody off the bench. And Al plays with so much passion. When Al is playing with passion like that, everybody has to follow.”

In the crowd behind the Boston bench, Horford’s father, Tito, who played two seasons in Milwaukee, beamed with pride watching his son. Tito was one of the first to greet his son after he walked off the court following his postgame TV interview and you can tell the 56-year-old father was swelling with pride.

There is still work to be done though to ensure The Al Horford Game earns a lofty place in Celtics lore. Boston has stolen back home court advantage, however, and two of the potential final three games of this series will take place at TD Garden.

With the teams playing every other day, it’s going to be difficult for Horford to maintain a high level of play. But he’s defied expectations at every other turn. Grant Williams keeps gushing about how Horford is playing more like he’s 28 than 35. And Horford keeps proving it by putting up stat lines that were not even feasible at the height of his NBA prime.

"Al is -- man, we love Al,” said Marcus Smart. "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 going bad or good, he’s gonna be him and, nine times out of 10, it’s gonna work out in our favor. So it was very much needed of him, and he came through big for us and helped us secure this win 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 do see it, it’s a sight to see, and we love it,” said Smart. "We need more of it … Al is gonna be him, and that’s why we love him."