There’s no other way to put it: the Boston Celtics picked up one of the signature wins of their season on Sunday afternoon, smothering the Milwaukee Bucks in the Fiserv Forum, 112-90. After waltzing past the Detroit Pistons in the first round, the NBA’s best regular season team seemed completely outside their comfort zone against the Celtics, shooting just 35% from the field while giving up 54% shooting to Boston’s offense on the other end.
At the heart of the blowout was Al Horford, who had arguably the best individual game of his three years in Celtics Green. Horford scored 20 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, dished three assists, and blocked four shots — three on MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo — and commanded both ends of the floor during his 32 minutes. Alongside him were strong performances from Kyrie Irving (26 points, 11 assists) and Jaylen Brown (19 points). On the other end, Antetokounmpo struggled through one of his worst games of the year, shooting just 7-of-21, and Milwaukee’s starters combined to make just 15 of their 50 shot attempts.
The story of the first quarter began with a statement effort on the defensive end from the Celtics, who held Milwaukee below 30% shooting from the field and forced four turnovers. The Bucks just looked uncomfortable for nearly the entire period; Antetokounmpo missed his first three shots, and the team missed seven consecutive shots collectively during an 11-1 Celtics run shortly after their MVP candidate sat for the first time of the afternoon. Meanwhile, 12 combined points from Irving and Hayward — including three ridiculous Irving fadeaway jumpers — powered the Celtics to a 26-17 Celtics lead at the end of the first.
It didn’t take long for Antetokounmpo to re-establish himself, scoring five quick points to start the second quarter, but the opening minutes of the period belonged to Boston. The Celtics kept their foot on the gas, powering their lead as high as 15 points even as Irving rode the bench and Antetokounmpo stayed on the court. In particular, the early minutes of the second quarter were Hayward’s playground, as he diced the Milwaukee defense to pieces with an array of crafty floaters.
If you’ve followed this Celtics team for long, though, the ensuing Milwaukee run was not necessarily surprising. What was surprising was that it came with Antetokounmpo on the bench — the Bucks poured on a 15-0 run behind a trio of threes from Mirotic and steady play from George Hill, and regained the lead with two minutes to play in the quarter. Irving would restore order to the game with a quick five points, but the damage was done, and the Celtics would enter the halftime break with just a two-point lead, 52-50.
While the second quarter run felt familiar, Boston’s third quarter was a surprise of a positive kind: absolute dominance on both ends of the court. The Celtics outscored the Bucks 36-21 on the back of a monstrous 32-9 run that lasted the bulk of the quarter. This was Horford’s signature stretch of the afternoon; working off his customary pick-and-pop game with Irving, he drilled a pair of threes and bullied the Bucks in the paint. In perhaps the defining play of the afternoon, he picked up two of his many blocks on Antetokounmpo at the rim — on consecutive possessions.
While the Celtics won the quarter on the scoreboard, they did suffer a key loss with just under two minutes left to play in the quarter: Aron Baynes, who rolled his ankle badly while contesting a shot under the basket and did not return to the game, though the Celtics did announce he was available to return. Baynes has been a crucial piece of the Celtics’ defense while healthy, but managed only 51 games during the regular season due to a variety of injuries.
At the start of the fourth, it was time for the Celtics to face the Bucks’ last stand. Milwaukee opened the quarter swinging, quickly trimming Boston’s lead down to 12 while Irving rested behind a pair of threes from Antetokounmpo, prompting a well-placed timeout from Brad Stevens. The last gasp wasn’t nearly enough, however: Irving returned to the game, hit a layup and connected with Horford for yet another pick-and-pop, and suddenly the Celtics led by 18 in the blink of an eye, with 6:40 left in regulation. A subsequent Rozier layup would extend the lead to a neat 20 points, and Boston would never look back.
Next up, the Celtics will remain in Milwaukee for Game 2 against the Bucks, Tuesday night at 8 PM EST on TNT.