In Game 4 of the Celtics’ increasingly intriguing first-round playoff series with the Bucks Sunday, it was the young fellas on the roster who did much of the heavy lifting. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum combined for 55 points on 20-of-40 shooting in a disappointing yet reassuring 104-102 loss to the Bucks.
Pretty decent for a couple of players whose combined age adds up Vince Carter’s number of years on this earth or hovering a few feet above it – 41.
It was enough to make the wise guys among us joke that Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving are going to make for nice complementary players for Tatum and Brown when they return from injury next year.
But in Game 5 Tuesday night back on the familiar parquet, certain Celtics veterans offered a reminder that the children have not inherited this round green planet quite yet.
Foremost was Al Horford, which should come as no surprise to anyone with an appreciation of basketball played with intelligence. Some nights the stat sheet doesn’t confirm his contributions. Tuesday night it did, while leaving room for admiring the nuances of his game.
In 37 minutes, Horford supplied a team-best 22 points, a career-playoff-best 14 rebounds, three assists, and a pair of blocked shots. The offense ran through him often, especially in the second half. He took Giannis Antetokounmpo down on the block and outmuscled him when he needed to. He did, as usual, whatever was necessary.
The Bucks cut the Celtics lead to four points four times in the fourth quarter. Four times the Celtics fended them off, with Horford usually involved in the response. He hit a 3 to make it 77-70 with 7 minutes, 13 seconds left; he also hit single free throws when the margin shriveled to 4, including the icing with 1.6 seconds left. He also found Jaylen Brown on a cut with a deft pass with 1:49 left to increase the margin to 7. It felt like a huge hoop at the time.
I’m also counting Marcus Smart as a veteran here, even though he just turned 24 years old last month. He is, somehow and after all, the Celtics’ longest-tenured player. At the least, he is a bridge from the savvy veterans – Marcus Morris also qualifies for such a designation – to the precocious youth.
Smart had been out since March 11 when he suffered a torn ligament in his right thumb while – naturally – diving for a loose ball. To say his return Tuesday night was welcome would be to understate the meaning of the word.
Smart entered the game to soaring roars from the Garden crowd with 4:08 left to play in the first quarter. In that stretch, he hit the floor for a loose ball roughly 30 seconds after checking in, made his only shot plus a free throw (a conventional 3-point play) to put the Celtics up 18-13, blocked Antetokounmpo at the rim, assisted a Terry Rozier basket, threw away a bullet pass, and got called for a (weak) offensive foul while setting a screen. He was plus-8 in that 4:08, the Bucks scored 2 points when he was on the court, and the Celtics took a 23-15 lead into the second quarter.
I’m not sure whether he was being passive-aggressive or simply making an observation, but Bucks coach Joe Prunty noted in the pregame that he told his team that Smart “gambles’’ and “reaches’’ on defense. He was right. Hopefully he also warned them that Smart overpowers taller players, never stops moving his feet, dives for every basketball that even looks like it might escape its possessor, won’t back down from any of the 7-foot, 175-pounders in the Bucks lineup, and does everything it takes to win.
Welcome back, you magnificent agitator.
Stevens said after the game that he wanted the Celtics to close on the ball better than they had during the two losses in Milwaukee. Smart’s sheer presence helped the Celtics ratchet up their perimeter defense and overall toughness. But there were other changes that added necessary edge to the defense. Semi Ojeleye, one of the kids, started and played 31 minutes, many coming in crunch time, and many spent guarding Antetokounmpo, who finished with 16 points on a season-low 10 shots.
It worked. Jabari Parker, who has a hint of The Truth in his game, got his, with 17 points. But Thon Maker, Matthew Dellavedova, Tony Snell, and Malcolm Brodgon scored a combined 4 points after averaging 27.5 during the two games in Milwaukee.
Another relative youngster, Rozier, scored 16 points, 11 coming in the second half, and 6 in the final 3:46 of the game. In the third quarter, he buried a 3 in Eric Bledsoe’s face after the Bucks guard who pretends not to know Rozier’s name but probably can’t get it out of head shoved him in a brief scrap. Then he hit four free throws down the stretch after getting poked in the face. No Celtic is as fiercely tough as Smart, but Rozier isn’t backing down from anyone.
This isn’t to say Brown and Tatum played poorly. Though they combined for just 22 points in this one, both had their moments, and Brown was a team-best plus-10.
But for all intents and purposes, this one ended in an appropriate manner – with Smart and Horford combining on a play of equal parts hustle and savvy. With the Celtics up 84-79, Smart hit the hardwood to battle three Bucks, possibly including Junior Bridgeman, for a loose ball.
With Maker’s arm extended over Smart’s eyes, he somehow wrestled the ball free and found Horford, in the right place as usual, for a crucial layup with 28.1 seconds left.
It was quintessential Smart, and quintessential Horford too.
Sure, Tatum and Brown are the future. They’re a major part of the present. But on this important night in the quest to prolong the season beyond a round, the brunt of the credit goes to the wise veteran who has been around the league the longest and knows all the angles and nuances, and that ol’ agitator who came back just in time.