BOSTON —The Boston Celtics got the gift they were wishing for this Christmas. Their once unstoppable offense, which had disappeared over the last few weeks, has finally returned. Led by 41 points from Jayson Tatum and 29 points from Jaylen Brown, the Celtics ran away from the Bucks in the second half for a 139-118 win.
Tatum helped the Celtics seize control of the game for good in the third quarter with a magnificent 20-point frame. He scored from all over the floor, not just in the third, but all night long. The Bucks simply had no answer for his array of jumpers and drives, which he supplemented with 10 trips to the free throw line. Tatum, who shot 14 of 22 from the field for his fifth consecutive 30-point game, also had seven rebounds and five assists.
The Celtics also caught fire from downtown, something they have not been able to do for the better part of the last two weeks. They made eight 3s in the first quarter alone, including a heave at the buzzer by Sam Hauser, and finished 19 of 39 from behind the arc. This was the 10th time they’ve made at least 19 3s in a game this season.
Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with 27 points and nine rebounds to lead the Bucks, but this was a rough outing for the two-time MVP. Much like they did in the playoffs, the Celtics made him work for every single point, holding him to 9 of 22 from the field. Even the shots he hit were primarily jumpers.
Here are some key takeaways from the game:
1. Tatum shines again
In the middle of the second quarter, Jayson Tatum threw a great pass to Marcus Smart in the corner, seemingly freeing up his teammate for a wide-open 3-pointer. Smart was unselfish, though, and passed it back to Tatum on the give-and-go. Tatum made sure not to waste the extra pass and threw down a huge one-handed slam on Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“The play was just attacking the rim,” Tatum said. “The Bucks are a big, physical team. If you go in there and try to lay it up, they’re probably gonna block it, especially him.”
He’s been down that road before in Game 3 of the team’s semifinal playoff series last season, so this wasn’t something new. On the contrary, it was a reminder of Tatum’s willingness and ability to go toe-to-toe with the league’s elite players. His 41 point-outing against Antetokounmpo was the fifth time he’s scored at least 30 points against another player in the top-10 of the NBA’s official MVP ladder. He also has two other 25-point outings against such players. In those games — against the likes of Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, etc. — he averaged 34.2 points.
“It’s fun,” Tatum said. “It’s fun playing on national TV, it’s fun playing on Christmas. Those match-ups are fun. You get to play against the other best players and it raises your level of play. The competition is exciting but that’s the game that you live for — the moments, the match-ups. If you can’t get up for those games, you’re probably in the wrong profession. In the midst of it, it’s just a lot of fun competing on a stage like this.”
2. Another tough night for Giannis
Giannis Antetokounmpo put up some monster numbers when these two teams met in the playoffs last season, including three 40-point outings. But although he averaged 33.9 points, 14.7 rebounds and 7.1 assists over those seven games, he needed 28 shots per game to get there, and was thoroughly worn down by the process.
Sunday’s meeting looked like Game 8 of that series, as the Celtics’ length, physicality and depth of defenders frustrated the two-time MVP. Again, his final numbers were strong: 27 points, nine rebounds and three assists. However, he went 9 of 22 from the field and only made two shots in the paint. The Celtics’ game plan and defensive talent once again succeeded.
“He’s a talented player, one of the best in the league,” Grant Williams said. “For us, it’s just a matter of doing what we can to contain it, make sure it’s physical and make sure none of the shots that he takes are easy.”
Williams, who starred in the Celtics’ Game 7 win in the playoffs last season, is one of the main options against the Greek Freak. He once again played a prominent role in the Celtics’ victory.
“For myself, just stay in front of him, match the physicality he brings and force him into tough shots,” Williams said. “He made a lot of tough fadeaways against me today. Those are ones you gotta live with. Just nod your head and keep it moving. Outside of that you just do your best to play with a natural physicality, because he’s gonna do the same . He’s not gonna stop. He’s relentless and so are we.”
3. Celtics’ offense, 3-point shooting re-emerges
The Celtics’ offense through the first six weeks of the season was always going to be difficult to sustain, but while a step back may have been expected, a total free fall was not. During their awful 1-5 stretch, the Celtics had the worst offense in the league and shot 28.6 percent on open and wide-open 3-pointers.
As if their Christmas wish had been answered, the Celtics’ offense reappeared on Sunday. The 3-point shooting, in particular, was stellar. Five of their first seven baskets were 3s, and they knocked down eight triples in the first quarter alone, including Sam Hauser’s 37-foot heave at the buzzer. Despite a cold stretch in the middle of the game, they finished 19 of 39 from downtown and had seven different players make at least one 3.
This was just the second time this month they’ve made at least 19 3-pointers, but the 10th time they’ve done so this season. No other team has as many such games, and the only other teams to even do it five times are the Golden State Warriors (nine), Dallas Mavericks (six), Indiana Pacers (six) and Utah Jazz (five).
Overall, the Celtics shot 58.8 percent from the field and scored 139 points, which was their second-highest total this season. Interim head coach Joe Mazzulla credited their pace for why they were able to have so much success scoring the ball.
“I thought we were disciplined in our gameplan and execution,” Mazzulla said. “We sprinted to our spacing; I thought we had a lot of good attacks in the first six-to-eight seconds of the shot clock. I thought we were able to get layups early, which spread their defense out and allowed us to execute in the halfcourt. That’s when we’re at our best is when we’re in that first six-to-eight second window of creating advantage, whether it’s in spacing or with a quick action.”
4. Playing out of the rut
Celtics president of basketball operationson Friday prior to the team’s win over the Minnesota Timberwolves and said: “From my perspective, the last two weeks we look like we’re in a little bit of a rut. We just need to play ourselves out of that.”
The team has done just that. First, a hard-fought, gritty win over the Timberwolves in which they did not shoot the ball well but figured things out in the fourth quarter. Now, on Christmas, a statement win against the team with the second-best record in the league. The Celtics are back on top of the league at 24-10, and have won back-to-back games for the first time since Dec. 5 and 7. With the lowly Houston Rockets (9-23) up next, they have a chance to start putting together a streak.
Did a marquee matchup on Christmas against a rival for the top spot in the East and the league spark the Celtics back to life? “Absolutely,” Al Horford said. “One of the top teams in our league and we had to bring that type of effort, because if not they will embarrass you. They’re a really good team.”
The key now will be for the Celtics to sustain this type of play like they did earlier in the season.