One of Al Horford’s finest games as a Celtic and Terry Rozier’s scorching hot second half have Boston moving on in the NBA playoffs.
Horford and Rozier each finished with 26 points and alternated halves serving as the focal point of the offense for the Celtics. Between the two, it was more than enough to cruise by the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals with a 112-96 win on Saturday night at TD Garden.
"The game’s slowing down for me,” Rozier said after the game on how things are coming together for him. “I did a lot of studying on film in the summer, how I can be better, how can I set up my teammates and stuff, and the important thing is just slowing my mind down and going out there and having confidence. That allows me to go out there and play at a high level.”
Rozier’s 26 points were a career high during the playoffs and the third time this series he’s scored over 20 points. In 24 previous career postseason games, Rozier had never scored more than 16.
Already sans superstars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, Boston also had to make do without rising stud Jaylen Brown for the entire second half vs. Milwaukee as he dealt with a hamstring injury.
No issue with Horford and Rozier leading the charge. The offense ran through the 11-year veteran in the first half, whom the Bucks couldn’t stop with their own superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo in foul trouble throughout the contest. Every time Milwaukee seemed ready to make its move, Horford was there to turn the tides back in favor of the Celtics. He had 14 of his points in the first 24 minutes.
Boston rallied from an early 15-10 deficit with a 20-2 run, going up 13 points at the end of the first quarter. The Bucks weren’t knocked out just yet, inching within two at 32-30.
There was Horford off of a timeout called by head coach Brad Stevens to score each of the next two baskets for the Celtics, followed by two more makes for Rozier as part of an 11-0 run to regain some breathing room. Boston led 50-42 at the half.
Stevens mentioned in his postgame press conference that if there was one time the Celtics looked out of sorts in the game, it was the beginning of the second half. Milwaukee had trimmed the Boston lead to 3 on two separate occasions. Horford continued to have the hot hand for the Celtics, scoring Boston’s first six points out of the locker room to counter the Bucks’ burst.
“It was probably the one moment, the end of the first half/start of the second where we looked a little bit lethargic,” Stevens said. “When we came back to the huddle for our first timeout, we had actually increased our lead by 2 and it was largely due to him [Horford]. We settled back into the way we were playing and our guys did a great job. It was a hard-fought series and a hard-fought game.”
Rozier proceeded to play lead as the second half wore on, taking the game over for the Celtics and leaving the Bucks stunned. On a night the Celtics missed each of their first nine attempts from 3-point land and finished the first half 1-for-12 from beyond the arc, Rozier was the only one who was even remotely feeling it from deep. He provided the lone make for Boston in the first half and continued to launch successfully in the second half, finishing the game 5-for-8 from downtown overall.
“I didn’t say a word to him, other that just ‘be you’” Stevens said of how he approached Rozier. “I told him all series, he’s really important to us. He’s been great all year, but certainly since he’s been in this starting role, he’s been excellent. We’re going to need that to continue.”
Jayson Tatum finished with 20 points, the rookie ending an uneven series on a high note. Marcus Morris, held scoreless in the first half, finished with 10 points off the bench in the second half for the Celtics.
Antetokounmpo, dealing with the aforementioned foul trouble, finished with 22 points and nine rebounds on 7-for-17 shooting. It wasn’t an easy night for the Greek Freak at the rim, as Horford emphatically denied just his second field goal attempt of the game to set the tone.
Khris Middleton once again led Milwaukee in scoring with a game-high 32 points on 11-for-18 shooting (5-for-9 from 3).
All seven games of the series were won by the home team, which is good news for the Celtics as they prepare for their second-round opponent in the Philadelphia 76ers. Boston will again have homecourt advantage, with Game 1 of the series set for Monday night at TD Garden at 8 p.m.