Fresh off a trade deadline that saw a pair of noteworthy deals, the Boston Celtics returned to the court slightly short-handed for a tough matchup in Milwaukee against the Eastern Conference two-seed Bucks. Despite the lack of bodies, the Celtics responded to the shakeup with perhaps their best performance of the season to this point. They hung 43 points on the Bucks in the third quarter and avoided one of their characteristic fourth quarter collapses to score a closer-than-the-score-indicates 122-114 victory.
Jayson Tatum led the way with one of his most dominant performances since returning from his bout with COVID-19, pouring in 34 points on 13-of-18 scoring. Supporting him was one of the Celtics’ most balanced team efforts in weeks, as the team cashed in on 22 three-pointers collectively (including 7 from Marcus Smart). The defense held two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to 16 points on 6-of-12 points from the field, and the efforts of Khris Middleton (19 on 7-of-11) weren’t enough to keep pace with Boston.
Boston’s reconfigured starting lineup — now featuring Robert Williams — was humming to open the contest. They came out of the gate with a lot of energy, powered by a quick 10 points from Walker in the opening minutes and a strong defensive effort that held Antetokounmpo to an 0-for-4 start from the field. The shorthanded roster led to opportunities for Boston’s youth — including a rare rotation appearance for Tacko Fall — and the Celtics managed to hold Milwaukee at bay anyways. They led 32-26 heading into the second quarter.
Boston’s improved effort carried over into the second quarter. The ball moved easier than it has in recent weeks, and the defensive effort was substantially more consistent. Tatum led the way with a dominant performance, connecting on a three-pointer with just over eight minutes to play in the half to push the Celtics’ advantage ahead to eight points. His 15 first half points help Boston compile a five point lead entering the break, 60-55.
One substantial benefit for the Celtics emerged from the pared-down roster: Robert Williams joining the starting lineup. He was simply everywhere, filling holes left and right and contributing in a major way on both ends of the court. It was one of the finest games of his young NBA career, as he recorded a near-five-by-five with 7 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal and 5 blocks on the evening.
It can’t be overstated how dominant the Celtics looked as the second half began. They outscored Milwaukee 20-9 in the opening four minutes of the third quarter, splashing threes all over the court to open up a 16 point edge on the Bucks and force a Mike Budenholzer timeout. The Bucks found some touch from long range as well, but the ongoing Celtics scoring barrage held them at arm’s length. They entered the final frame leading by 14, 103-89.
The true test for the post-trade deadline Celtics would be the fourth quarter that has proven to be a weakness for them all season long. Could they protect their lead and avoid the critical runs they’ve surrendered consistently during their recent downswing?
This time, they did. They opened the quarter with a quick series of buckets, and had an answer for everything Milwaukee threw their way. Even new addition Mo Wagner got in on the action, seeing some unanticipated minutes midway through the quarter and cashing in on his first bucket in Celtics Green, a three-pointer from the right corner. It wasn’t technically the dagger, with plenty of time remaining on the clock, but functionally, it was the dagger. The Bucks failed to make any inroads in the minutes to follow, and emptied their bench with just under three minutes to play to concede the Boston win.
Next up, the Celtics will hope to have their new additions available tomorrow evening, as they finish out their back-to-back in Oklahoma City against the Thunder at 8 PM EST on NBC Sports Boston.