MILWAUKEE – The tests just keep coming for Al Horford who found himself once again facing an extremely talented and versatile offensive player in Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Horford’s ability to defend Antetokounmpo better than anyone has this season along with having his best scoring game of the season, set the tone for Boston’s 96-89 win over Milwaukee.
The Celtics (3-2) have now won three in a row along with evening up the head-to-head series with the Bucks (3-2).
Horford finished with a near double-double this season, tallying 27 points and nine rebounds. Boston also got a strong game from Kyrie Irving who had 24 points and seven assists.
Antetokounmpo had a double-double with 28 points, 10 rebounds along with seven assists with most of his scoring coming when Horford wasn’t defending him.
Horford, whose defensive dexterity has led to him defending talented bigs like Joel Embiid to perimeter-oriented, highly-skilled bigs like Sixers Ben Simmons and New York’s Kristaps Porzingis.
But Antetokounmpo presented the ultimate challenge for Horford, with the Greek Freak coming in having scored at least 30 points in each of Milwaukee’s first four games.
However, the Bucks showed they were more than just a one-man show in the second quarter with contributions coming from several players. Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon, the reigning rookie of the year, had 10 first-half points to help the Bucks rally from a double-digit deficit to lead Boston 44-43 at the half.
The Celtics had a chance at the very end to go ahead, but a desperation 3-point heave by Marcus Smart hit the back of the rim and bounced out as time expired.
Milwaukee’s first-half momentum carried over into the third quarter as they pushed their lead up to 59-52 following a 3-pointer by Khris Middleton which led to Celtics head coach Brad Stevens calling a time-out with 7:03 to play in the quarter.
Boston’s offense began to bog down in part because it became more predictable with Kyrie Irving and Horford being the only reliable sources scoring points for Boston.
Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, who had a historically awesome performance in Boston’s 110-89 win over New York on Tuesday, struggled mightily most of the first half as they combined to miss 10 of their 11 shot attempts.
Boston fell behind 59-52, but went on a 13-4 run fueled by back-to-back corner 3’s by Horford.
The Bucks would regain the lead courtesy of some nice moves around the rim by Greg Monroe, but the Celtics continued to stay within striking distance with the quarter ending with Boston ahead 72-69 following a buzzer-beating basket from Al Horford as time expired.
Boston’s lead was down to 84-78 following a 3-pointer by Tony Snell, leading Celtics head coach Brad Stevens to call a time-out with 5:51 to play.
The Celtics came out of the time-out and got a 3-pointer from Horford with Boston’s control of the game never being an issue afterward.