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The Boston Celtics understood the position they were in as they fell behind the Milwaukee Bucks by 11 points toward the end of the third quarter of Game 4 Monday night: if they couldn’t get their act together in the final 12 minutes, they’d be on the brink of postseason elimination.
That was all the motivation they needed.
Playing with a heightened sense of urgency in a hostile environment on the road, Boston turned those final 12 minutes into the best fourth quarter in franchise playoff history, outscoring the Milwaukee Bucks 43-28, en route to a 116-108 series-tying win.
“For us, it was just keep going,” Marcus Smart said of the mindset as his Celtics entered the fourth quarter trailing by seven points. “Adversity is here, we gotta get over that hump, we gotta do whatever we can. And this is a challenge for us, it’s a game we needed to win, and this is where we’re gonna see where we’re at and what we’re made of.”
What they were made of were buckets. The Celtics tied their franchise playoff record for most points in a fourth quarter, while shooting 16-of-19 from the field, 4-of-5 from 3-point range, and 7-for-7 from the free-throw line – that calculates to a blistering true shooting clip of 97.4 percent.
Through the first three frames, the Celtics had only shot 28-of-71 (39.4 percent) from the field and 6-of-21 (28.6 percent) from 3-point range. The fact that they were trailing by single digits despite such mediocre clips gave the C’s hope that they could turn the game around.
“Through all the mistakes we made, through all the buckets they hit, the free-throws we gave up, the turnovers, the game was only a seven-point game,” said Smart, who tallied 18 points, eight assists, and two blocks. “So that was very encouraging on our end because we knew we could play better. We knew that once we did play better, things would be turned around for us, and that’s what we did. We stayed together, we stayed to the game plan, and we just continued to fight.”
Smart was among the three main offensive fighters for Boston in the fourth, as he, Al Horford, and Jayson Tatum combined for 37 points while shooting 15-of-17 from the field, including 4-of-4 from long range.
Horford was the main catalyst, scoring 16 points on 6-of-6 shooting from the field and finishing with a playoff career-high of 30 points. And he was playing with a vengeance after missing a potential game-tying bucket at the buzzer in Game 3.
“I think we all understood the importance of this game,” said the 35-year-old center, who had to step up in the absence of Rob Williams after Williams was ruled out with knee soreness just before tip-off. “And we felt that, at the end of Game 3, we were in a position to win the game and we didn’t. I was just really just locked in. I understood the moment, what we needed to do as a group and just came out and then really just did whatever it took tonight.”
It also took slowing down Giannis Anteotkounmpo on the other end of the floor after the Greek Freak went off for 28 points during the first three frames. Horford did his part there as well, helping to hold the two-time MVP to just six points on 3-of-7 shooting. Antetokounmpo also committed three fouls in the fourth quarter, while only earning one trip to the free-throw line himself.
The Celtics had to take the game out of Milwaukee’s hands in the fourth quarter, and they earned it with their historic fourth-quarter effort.
“We just went and left it all on the court tonight,” said Smart. “We were playing not up to our standards, we have been playing that way the whole series, but we’ve been in every game and for us, it’s just finishing those plays when we get in those spots. We’ve been there plenty of times – just go and take it. And that’s what we did tonight.”