Midway through the second quarter of the Celtics’ game against the Bucks on Sunday, Jayson Tatum drew two defenders at the right arc and threaded a quick pass to Marcus Smart, who was wide open in the corner.
Smart could have taken the shot, but he could see based on the spacing that other options would be at his disposal. He shoveled a quick pass back to a cutting Tatum, who jumped and completed a forceful one-handed slam over Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. Tatum hung on the rim for a few seconds to lengthen the moment in case anyone in a rumbling TD Garden had been dipping a pretzel in mustard at the time.
Even though it was just one basket during a long game that had 91 others, it felt symbolic. Tatum, a leading MVP candidate, has guided the Celtics to the top of the NBA. Antetokounmpo, whose team would have leapfrogged Boston with a win, is a two-time MVP who is in the running to win the award again.
But on this night, Milwaukee’s star was outclassed. Tatum made 14 for 22 shots and scored 41 points to lead Boston to an emphatic 139-118 win that further distanced this team from its recent mild rut.
Antetokounmpo was 9 for 22 and had 27 points and nine rebounds to lead the Bucks, but he struggled for most of the night before going on a mini run when the game’s outcome was essentially decided.
“I think that’s just a sign that we do have a really good team, in all honesty,” Tatum said. “We’re not perfect, nobody is, and we’re going to have some bad moments, some tough games, and that’s fine. There’s nothing that you can change about those games. It’s all about how you respond.”
It was clear that the Celtics had some issues to clean up during their recent skid in which they lost five of six games, but the level of concern within the organization remained low. Their scorching 3-point shooting had overcorrected to the downside, and there was no belief that things would remain that way.
On Sunday, Boston’s offense again resembled the one that was so dominant at the start of this season. The Celtics shot 58.8 percent from the field and 48.7 percent from the 3-point line.
“It did feel good to kind of get back to playing the way we know how to play,” Tatum said. “We have the emotional understanding of, it’s a long season, and there’s going to be great stretches and there’s going to be some bad ones. It’s just kind of not letting the bad ones snowball, and get back on track sooner rather than later. And it helps when we make shots, too.”
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla appreciated the scorching shooting, but he understands that his team will need to find ways to win when those percentages dip. And if the shooting had turned sour, Boston was well positioned to withstand it thanks to its play elsewhere.
The Celtics surrendered just eight offensive rebounds and 13 second-chance points, and whenever Milwaukee appeared poised to go on a run, it was stopped in its tracks.
“I think that has to become the identity of our team, is really working to win those factors consistently, whether we shoot the ball good or not,” Mazzulla said. “And I think our last two games, we’ve kind of done that.”
The Celtics led, 62-61, at the start of the third quarter when Tatum took over, scoring in every way imaginable during his 20-point period that stretched Boston’s lead to 100-86 at the start of the fourth.
The Bucks scored the first 5 points of the fourth with Tatum on the bench to pull within 9, but Jaylen Brown (29 points) helped ensure they would get no closer. With Boston leading, 113-101, he erupted for 10 points in three minutes, and Milwaukee was never a threat again. The Celtics outscored the Bucks, 77-57, in the second half.
“It’s one of the top teams in our league and we had to bring that type of effort,” Celtics forward Al Horford said, “because if not, they will embarrass you.”
Although the Bucks shot 50 percent from the field, the improving Celtics defense bothered them when it mattered. And it started by throwing waves of defenders at Antetokounmpo before he could find a rhythm.
When Mazzulla was asked about slowing down the Bucks superstar, he named five players who had played key roles before just saying that everyone played an important role. In the first half, Boston turned Antetokounmpo into a perimeter shooter, and he fired up three 3-pointers that were not even close to going in.
His frustration seemed to boil over in the game’s final minutes, when he fell to the ground after running into a Brown screen and then jumped up and shoved Boston’s forward, resulting in a technical foul.
“You just do your best to play with natural physicality, because he’s going to do the same,” Celtics forward Grant Williams said. “He’s not going to stop, he’s relentless, and so are we.”