BOSTON — Marcus Smart facilitated the give-and-go from the corner, catching a pass from Jayson Tatum and watching Brook Lopez fly out to him as Tatum cut behind a pulverized Giannis Antetokounmpo with a one-handed slam over his head. Tatum swung and watched Giannis below.
Undeterred by a team that nearly eliminated them from the second round of the playoffs, the Celtics unloaded on the Bucks, 139-118, in a game that ran close throughout, but never featured a lead change after the first quarter.
Antetokounmpo’s struggles, starting 5-for-15 and scoring eight of his 27 points in the fourth quarter trailing by double-digits, held back the Bucks’ runs to stay within single-digits until late. The loss knocked Milwaukee outside of the league’s top-five half court defenses after a dominant start to the season in their own end. Plenty of additional red flags raise questions about whether or not the Bucks truly represent the biggest threat to Boston.
Khris Middleton sat for his fifth game with a knee injury that’s not progressing how the Bucks hoped. He missed 20 games following offseason wrist surgery after an MCL sprain that cost them their second round series and a chance at a repeat. Now, his availability and uneasy production this season, shooting 32.5% from the field in seven games, have the Bucks looking up at Boston in the east hierarchy. Sunday’s loss and a negative December net rating slid Milwaukee behind the Celtics, Cavaliers, Nets and 76ers in that category (+2.4).
Giannis’ approach on Sunday raised more questions than anything. He played as passively as he had in years as the Bucks lost a third straight game decisively to one of the east’s best teams, following Cleveland and Brooklyn.
“We’ve played against these guys and them a lot, they’re good individual defenders,” Mike Budenholzer said. “They’re strong, they’re physical, they move their feet, things like that. We’ve just got to keep moving (Giannis), try to get him to good spots. As he shoots it better, more and more things will open up for him. I think he shot it well from the mid-range tonight, so that’s a positive.”
The Celtics exited the game thrilled with Giannis’ settling, taking eight shots in the paint compared to 14 jump shots outside of it. Antetokounmpo averaged roughly the reverse, 14 paint attempts and six long jumpers, including only 3.0 three-point attempts entering the Christmas showcase.
Boston made him work in the half court. Grant Williams and Al Horford sensed his tendencies, holding Antetokounmpo to 2-for-4 and 6-for-13, respectively. Joe Mazzulla pivoted to Blake Griffin for a first-half bench stint instead of Robert Williams III. Griffin had battled Giannis effectively in the 2021 playoffs.
Griffin, however, missed a back door layup on a pass from Horford that freed Antetokounmpo to score the other way after a six-point first quarter. Tatum and Smart snuck into the lane to force Antetokounmpo to pass, leading to Tatum scrambling back into position to Grayson Allen on the weak side and fouling.
Giannis settled for a three-point try on the next drive and Tatum took the rebound back, passed to Smart and quickly cut to slam his latest signature dunk.
“For myself, just doing whatever to stay in front of him, match the physicality that he brings and force him into tough shots, he made a lot of tough fadeaways against me today, and those are the ones you’ve got to live with … I think every single foul was warranted, or at least semi-warranted … you try your best to play with a natural physicality,” Grant said.
“Over the years, I feel like I’ve done a better job defending him … he’s going to improve, because he’s always going to work on his game. His mid-range has improved so much since the first time I played him … for me, it’s trying to do the same, continue to get better at cutting him off, not letting him get to spots and affecting the shots that he takes.”
Tatum and Smart finished another give-and-go play, but Jrue Holiday scored seven points late in the second quarter to pull the Bucks within one point at halftime. Milwaukee outscored the Celtics while Giannis sat, as he posted a game-worst -27 (+/-) while he played.
Boston turned his misses into transition, and Tatum hit a three after a 1-for-3 start, hung his head in relief and powered to 30 points by hitting all five shots he took at the rim, attempting 11 in the paint and only seven from three in a balanced effort. His floater fell as part of a 20-point third quarter that propelled the Celtics ahead by 14 points. The Bucks didn’t have wing defenders for Tatum, whether Pat Connaughton, Brook Lopez in switches, or Allen. The Celtics’ defense could switch everything effectively. The Bucks’ could not, and Holiday again played a prominent role guarding much taller players in Tatum and Brown. Wes Matthews did not.
Malcolm Brogdon, Giannis’ former teammate, understood his tendencies too, and cut off Jevon Carter trying to chase one of Giannis’ four misses on 12 free throw tries, turning into Tatum transition points the other way. Carter and other Bucks crashing the glass fell behind the play. A constant on Sunday night.
The game also exposed the difficulties a fading Bucks team faces while all the pressure rests on Giannis and Holiday for offensive creation. Much like the postseason series they played in May, drive after drive after drive wore on Giannis. His shot profile featured even more passiveness than his exhausted Game 7 effort in Boston.
“We haven’t grown,” Antetokounmpo told The Athletic. “We lost the game. So, we gotta still work on it. We’re not good at it. Gotta go back, work on it, watch the tape. Try to improve, try to figure out ways to score the ball, try to be effective against them, try to figure out ways to play against the switch.”
Antetokounmpo and Jaylen Brown drew face-to-face after Brown knocked him over as the Bucks trailed by 18 points in the closing minutes. Giannis threw an arm bar at Brown after jumping to his feet, earning a technical, while Smart and Thanasis Antetokounmpo jawed along the sideline. They avoided greater hostilities as the Celtics left the floor with the win, escaping some of their struggles from earlier in the month with some pace.
The Bucks couldn’t generate their full court game again, a trend this year, against an ascending Celtics defense that also hit nearly 60% of its shots on the offensive end. Milwaukee played on the break for 13.7% of the game, compared to 15% for the season. Mazzulla pointed to the four factors, outshooting the Bucks and winning the turnover battle, while effectively matching them in free throw attempts (25-27) and hitting more.
The Bucks’ stat sheet grew increasingly concerning, falling 19th in effective shooting, 21st in turnover rate, 22nd in free throw rate and only sitting tied for 12th in points per possession following their seventh-best offensive rebounding.
They’re forcing the second-fewest turnovers and boast only the 27th-ranked transition efficiency after Sunday. In the half court, they score 95 points per 100 plays, which ranks 19th behind the Lakers. The Celtics, who scored 122.9 points per 100 plays in the half court against the Bucks’ defense, sit at the top of the league with Dallas.
“The Bucks are a big physical team,” Tatum said. “You go in there and try to lay it up, they’re probably gonna block it. Especially (Giannis). Playing against the Bucks, obviously you’ve got some history there, but I’ve got so much respect for them, the things they’ve accomplished in recent years and they bring out the best in us. We know it’s a team we’re gonna see pretty often and Giannis as well is if not the best, one of the best players in the league today.”