With Marcus Smart on the bench in street clothes and a 1-0 series deficit staring them down, the Celtics punched back when they needed to on Tuesday night, as they pummeled the Bucks with a dominant first half and did enough in the second to hold on for a wire-to-wire 109-86 win in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at TD Garden.
Smart was ruled out about two hours before tipoff because of a quadriceps contusion, but Boston’s defense stood tall without the NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and the Celtics used a barrage of first-half 3-pointers to leave Milwaukee dazed.
Jaylen Brown connected on all five of his first-half shots from beyond the arc, when he scored 25 of his game-high 30 points. Jayson Tatum finished with 29 points and Grant Williams added 21. The Celtics made 20 of 43 3-pointers, while the Bucks connected on just 3 of 18.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had 28 points on 11-of-27 shooting, and added 9 rebounds and 7 assists for Milwaukee, but he had little help.
The Celtics exploded to a 65-40 halftime lead behind Brown’s hot shooting, and although the Bucks inched closer at various times and pulled within 12 with less than five minutes left, the Celtics held them off.
Other observations from the game:
▪ Brown’s first shot was a mid-range attempt from the key that gently bounced around the rim before falling through. And maybe that was all he needed to see. Having been held to 12 points in Game 1, Brown put the Celtics on his back during a dominant opening quarter with an array of tough step-back jumpers. He was 6 for 7 from the field and 3 for 3 from the 3-point line. He could have been called for a push-off on a couple of them, but the officials were letting things go on both sides for much of the half. Brown made 9 of 10 shots and 5 of 5 3-pointers before halftime.
▪ Derrick White started in place of Smart, and he was the only player who didn’t have a real impact during Boston’s explosive start. On the first possession he drove and had his layup swatted by Brook Lopez. Later, he missed an open 3-pointer from the corner and then stepped out of bounds before a baseline drive. White was scoreless in the first half but did register four assists.
White’s shooting struggles led Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer to make a slight adjustment to start the third quarter, putting Antetokounmpo on White and essentially allowing the former league MVP to act as a roamer. He left White open several times, and he was unable to capitalize before heading to the bench after collecting his fourth foul five minutes into the third.
▪ Even though Antetokounmpo made just 9 of 25 shots in Game 1, he was in control throughout, firing pinpoint passes and getting to his spots as he pleased. In the first half on Tuesday, though, he had little impact. He started the game by missing an open 3-pointer from the corner. The Celtics sagged back and dared him to fire away from the perimeter, and he mostly obliged with no success, shooting 2 for 12 before halftime. In the third quarter he got back to doing what he does best: using his speed and strength to plow to the rim. The problem for Milwaukee was that by that point, it already faced a massive deficit.
▪ After Game 1, coach Ime Udoka said the Celtics had sometimes been too quick to throw double-teams at Antetokounmpo. He insisted that the team had sturdy one-on-one defenders, and sometimes it was best to just trust them and not create openings elsewhere. Midway through the first quarter, Grant Williams provided one sterling example of this approach, when he held his ground as Antetokounmpo tried to bully him in the post and forced a tough 8-foot hook shot that missed. Williams grabbed the rebound with some gusto, and the crowd loved it.
▪ There are plenty of stats that exemplify Boston’s shooters throwing flames in the first half, but this one stands out: Brown, Grant Williams, and Payton Pritchard combined to go 10 for 10 from beyond the arc. The ball movement was excellent, with players routinely passing up good shots to find great ones.
▪ Udoka was actually pleased with his team’s half-court defense in Game 1. The problem was that the turnovers and poor shooting gifted too many transition opportunities for the Bucks. A 65 percent 3-point shooting half can help wipe away that issue. When the Bucks settled into their regular offense Tuesday, everything was a chore. Their fast-break chances probably masked how much they’re going to miss injured All-Star Khris Middleton in this series.
▪ The Bucks crawled back within 72-56 in the third quarter behind Antetokounmpo, who began to find success lowering his head and bulldozing to the rim. It was hardly a collapse by Boston, but there was at least some unease. So one play felt significant: After a timeout, Brown drove to the rim and had his dunk attempt blocked. It could have ignited a fast-break attempt. But Robert Williams kept the loose ball alive, and it ended up in the hands of Grant Williams, who drilled a 3-pointer.
▪ Robert Williams picked up his fifth foul of the game with a little less than eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, and Al Horford went to the scorer’s table to check in for him moments later. But play continued, and Williams either did not know about his foul situation or did not care. When Antetokounmpo drove and attacked the rim, Williams met him in midair and smothered his attempt. The ball went out of bounds, and Williams checked out safely.