It got close at the end, but the Celtics proved themselves as the top team in the East by winning a showdown with the Bucks in Boston, 119-116. The final score was closer than the game, as the Celtics never trailed.
Jaylen Brown led with 26 points, while Jayson Tatum added 23 and Kristaps Porzingis 21. Boston had seven players in double figures, totaled 27 assists on 44 baskets, and got 31 points from the bench. For the Bucks, Brook Lopez and Damian Lillard combined for 55 points. Boston shot 52.4% and held the Bucks to 44.6%.
On the night before Thanksgiving, a clash between the Celtics and Bucks provided a feast of NBA storylines. We had:
- The rivalry forged by Boston facing Milwaukee in the playoffs three times in the last six years (including two Game 7 wins by the Celtics).
- The hype of all-NBAers Tatum vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo.
- The Bucks’ addition of Lillard, and the Celtics’ acquisition (via Portland) of Jrue Holiday, the very same player Milwaukee had traded for Dame.
- And, most important, the matter of which Eastern heavyweight would sit atop the conference once the final buzzer sounded.
Tatum was listed as questionable with an illness during the day, but at tipoff the only man on either injured list was Milwaukee’s Jae Crowder. The Bucks were riding a five-game win streak while the Cs were coming off their disappointing loss in Charlotte.
Brown got the Celtics started quickly with 1) a monster jam over Lopez, and 2) a corner three. After a leaner in the paint by Tatum, Jaylen nailed another triple and the lead was 10-0. Bucks called time and the TD Garden crowd was delirious.
Milwaukee responded with five straight points, but the Celtics soon used a 9-2 run to stretch the lead to 24-10. When Sam Hauser drained a transition triple off some snappy ball movement, the lead was 15. At the end of one, Boston was up 29-17.
Giannis was guarded effectively by a combination of Holiday, Al Horford and Tatum. He finished the quarter just 2-of-9 for 5 points. Lillard missed his first six attempts before swishing a three, and Khris Middleton was 0-of-3 in the period. Meanwhile, the Celtics shot 50% from the arc and 50% overall.
In the second, the Bucks made an early push to cut the margin to 8, but it was a mirage. The Cs soon ripped off a 12-2 run featuring Tatum and Payton Pritchard threes and a pair of and-ones from Horford and Brown. Porzingis joined the party with a trey and a gorgeous jam to finish a lob from Brown. Zinger then added two more driving slams for a personal 9-0 run.
— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) November 23, 2023
This JB-KP connection they're talking about is no joke pic.twitter.com/FeVpVKsb35
Boston’s lead peaked at 21, but Lopez (10 points in the quarter) kept the visitors afloat and by halftime they had crawled back to within 67-53. Lopez had 14 and Giannis 10 at the break. The Bucks shot just 40.4% against the hosts’ stingy defense, but were aided by a 10-2 advantage in second-chance points.
The Celtics, meanwhile, tallied 15 assists and blistered the nets at 58.1% (25-of-43) and 52.2% (12-of-23) from distance. The Jays led with 13 points each and the bench was on fire: Hauser, Horford and Pritchard combined for 25 points on 9-of-12 shooting.
The Bucks opened the third with three straight layups, but Tatum and Brown each countered with a three. For the next several minutes, every time Milwaukee cut into the lead, the Celtics put it right back with balanced scoring by everyone except Holiday (scoreless at this point).
That trend continued all the way to the buzzer, with the Celtics up 94-79, one point more than their halftime lead. Jaylen owned the quarter, scoring 11 on 4-of-5 shots and adding 3 assists. JB was putting on a show with a series of dunks, fadeaway jumpers and spectacular lobs.
With the Bucks stars on the bench to start the fourth, the Celts quickly got the lead back to 19, with Holiday finally getting on the board with a three. Porzingis picked up his fifth foul with seven minutes left, but Horford picked up the slack. He scored on a putback, threw a long, perfect outlet pass to Brown for a layup. and stripped Lopez under the basket.
It couldn’t be completely easy, of course. The Bucks rallied with six straight to cut the lead to 109-99. Timeout. KP returned to the floor and drilled a three, but Lillard matched it. The Bucks seemed to lose steam when Giannis missed an open layup, but at the other end Porzingis got T’d up (again!) after a no-call. Lillard made the free throw, then a layup, and Milwaukee had a 12-3 run.
Tatum cooked Lopez for a slam, but Middleton hit a triple, so did Lillard, and suddenly the lead was just three. Tatum drove and got hammered; he made one of two and it was 115-111 with 20.6 seconds left.
The last gasp came when Lillard got to the rim but hit the front rim on a dunk attempt. Tatum was fouled intentionally and made both to seal it.
The Celtics return on Friday at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time when they make their only visit to Orlando this season. The meeting with the Magic will also be Boston’s third In-Season Tournament contest.