Boys play basketball during the NBA regular season. It’s a lighthearted game featuring limited resistance and a lot of highlights.
Men play basketball in the playoffs. It’s a ruthless game featuring brutish physicality and no mercy across the court.
Al Horford just taught Giannis Antetokounmpo what it’s like to play the second of those two games.
In the opening round of their Eastern Conference Semifinal matchup, the fourth-seeded Celtics manhandled the top-seeded Bucks in every conceivable way, cruising to a 112-90 win in Milwaukee. It was a stunning performance and perhaps nothing exemplified it more than the battle between Horford and Antetokounmpo.
After a walkthrough performance against the lowly Pistons in the first round, Antetokounmpo, the presumptive league MVP, was stifled by Horford in this matchup, scoring 22 points, but needing 21 shots to get there. Horford, meanwhile, scored 20 on 50% shooting and also blocked Antetokounmpo twice in one sequence, a rarity that usually occurs less than twice in two months.
This is a good place to remind people this is Antetokounmpo’s first appearance in the conference semifinals. He just earned his first playoff series win against the Pistons, but, like Michael Jordan had to learn against the Bad-Boy Pistons, beating a physical team like the Celtics who have a physical center like Horford in the playoffs is a different animal than anything he’s experienced before.
This is also a good place to remind people Horford has been in the playoffs 11 times. He’s played in the conference finals three times, all against LeBron. He knows what it takes to compete and succeed at the highest level against the best players in the biggest moments. Don’t forget, Horford had the same kind of defensive performance against Joel Embiid during the playoffs last year, shutting down that All-Star during the Celtics semifinal series win over the 76ers. While it’s far too early to assume the same outcome this year, this is following the same script so far, and that script includes an overly-confident young star squaring off against a gritty veteran with nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Perhaps this was the wakeup call Antetokounmpo and the Bucks needed. Perhaps it was an indication of things to come. But either way, Antetokounmpo learned the hard way the difference between basketball during the regular season vs postseason today, and if he can’t be as tough and ruthless as his opponent, the Bucks won’t win this series.