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celtics 108, bucks 100

Celtics top Bucks, take first place in Atlantic

The rebuilding Celtics are leading the Atlantic Division with an 8-12 record.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

The rebuilding Celtics are leading the Atlantic Division with an 8-12 record.

By the final buzzer, the Celtics sat in first place in the Atlantic Division.

The Celtics, who were led by the league’s youngest coach, a rookie previously employed by a mid-major private university in Indianapolis.

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The Celtics, who were without their two likely Hall of Famers, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, both traded in the offseason to a division rival for a package of players and first-round draft picks.

The Celtics, who were without their best overall player, Rajon Rondo, an All-Star point guard still sidelined as he recovers from knee surgery.

Yes, the standings said, the rebuilding Celtics were leading the Atlantic with an 8-12 record after beating the Milwaukee Bucks, 108-100, at TD Garden Tuesday night.

Then the Toronto Raptors lost to the Golden State Warriors, 112-103, at Oakland, giving the Celtics a half-game lead over the Raptors and the 76ers.

So the Celtics are at the top, and division rival New York (3-13) are at the bottom, followed by Brooklyn (5-13), where Garnett and Pierce both landed.

Before the season, such a possibility, even for a brief moment, would have seemed ludicrous, but that is perhaps the only word that seems to accurately capture how this unpredictable NBA season so far has played out.

The Celtics players didn’t celebrate after winning for the fourth time in their last six games, though. They barely acknowledged the fact that they were leading the division.

“Anything can happen,” said Avery Bradley, who scored 15 points. “It’s early in the season.”

For the moment, the Celtics seemed only glad that they were able to beat the Bucks after losing two previous games against them this season, including Saturday night in Milwaukee.

“They’ve had our number from Game 1,” said Jeff Green, who scored 18. “I think we just finally had enough.

“I think we finally just ran our stuff as perfectly as we can and we got stops when we needed.”

In Saturday night’s game, the Celtics were abysmal from beyond the arc, missing 15 of 19 3-pointers.

But the Celtics dialed long distance again a couple days later and finally connected, tying their season-high with 11 3-pointers.

The Celtics went 5 of 7 from 3-point range in the decisive fourth quarter, when they scored 39 points, their highest point total for any quarter this season.

“It’s funny how you evaluate the game sometimes; it’s easy to say that we were way better tonight, but bottom line is we made some shots that we missed the other night,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens.

Jordan Crawford led the way, scoring 15 points in the fourth, hitting all five of his shots, including three from 3-point range.

Crawford finished with a season-high 25 points.

“The defense kind of forced me to look for my shot more, with them being in a zone,” Crawford said. “I just wanted to be aggressive and try to open up other things.”

That he did.

The Bucks cut the Boston lead to 90-87 with 4:13 left, but the Celtics responded with an 8-2 run in less than a minute, a spurt keyed by 3-pointers from Crawford and Bradley.

The Bucks again cut the Celtics lead to 3 with 1:10 left, but the Celtics answered with a 7-0 run, the biggest shot an 18-foot jumper from center Jared Sullinger with the shot clock winding down.

“Honestly, it was a double team, and I was just trying to escape the double team and I saw a little daylight and so I stepped back and shot the shot,” said Sullinger, who scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds.

The shot fell, and the Garden crowd rose and cheered. The Celtics then hit 5 of 6 free throws and Bradley converted a late dunk on a fast break to seal the victory over a pesky opponent, one that had overcome double-digit deficits to win the last two games and nearly did so again Tuesday night.

O.J. Mayo led the Bucks with 19 points.

With Brandon Bass scoring 16, all five Celtics starters scored in double figures. Reserve guard Courtney Lee came off the bench to score 11 points after missing the last two games with a sore left knee.

Seeing as how the Celtics were the temporary kings of their division, Gerald Wallace, who had 6 points, 4 assists, and 4 rebounds, looked back over their first month and what could’ve been.

“We have what, 12 losses?” he asked. “And we probably feel like in six of them or seven of them, we could’ve easily won and our record would’ve been totally different from what it is now.”

Stevens said the standings mean little – at this point, anyway.

“It has no bearing on my life,” he said. “Literally none. What it is . . . you can take a snapshot of where you stand vs. the competition, but it has nothing to do with your preparation on your next opponent, it has nothing to do with getting better tomorrow, it’s just what’s happened.”

And of their record?

“We’re 8-12,” Stevens said. “It’s not like we’re lighting the world on fire here.”

Well, they can at least chill for a couple days, as the Celtics won’t play again until Friday at home against Denver.

After that, the Celtics will head south to face two teams whose seasons are headed in that very direction, two teams that, at the moment, are in the basement of the division that the Celtics led at the final buzzer Tuesday night.

They’ll face New York and Brooklyn.

Baxter Holmes can be reached at baxter.holmes@globe.com.
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