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Celtics respond to challenge by Bucks with their best game of the season in holiday showdown

The Celtics' defense-by-committee approach frustrated, and even angered, Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was held at bay by teammate Pat Connaughton at one point.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Perhaps the Celtics just responded to the level of competition. The Milwaukee Bucks were supposedly the best team they’ve faced and the Celtics responded with their best game of the season.

Or maybe this is a customary performance when shots are actually falling. Don’t call the December skid over, but it’s greatly disintegrating as the month comes to an end.

The Celtics’ Christmas Day effort against the Bucks — a 139-118 thrashing on 58.8 percent shooting — was impressive. Most impressive was their defense against perennial MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo. He has been a nemesis for years, an unstoppable force who can live at the free throw line or gallop from half court to the rim in three steps for dunks.


Sunday was a fascinating test for coach Joe Mazzulla because it was the first time he faced Antetokounmpo as a head coach and he had to devise a plan to limit Antetokounmpo’s production and place the scoring onus on other players.

Mazzulla’s defense-by-committee plan worked. He has been criticized of late for not making necessary adjustments but his game plan ensured the Celtics of victory.

Yes, the Celtics did prove they’re the best team in the Eastern Conference as we approach January but they also showed their ability to respond against a team where lapses, bad shots, silly turnovers, and subpar effort will get you beaten easily.

Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 41 points, boosting his MVP candidacy on the biggest stage, including 20 in the third quarter when Boston pulled away. He completely outplayed his counterpart Antetokounmpo.

“It did feel good to get back to playing the way that we know how to play,” Tatum said. “We have the emotional understanding of it’s a long season. There are going to be some great stretches and there are going to be some bad ones. Just not letting the bad ones snowball. It helps when we make shots, too.”


The Celtics had been guilty of having past failures create future failures — slow to get back on defense after missed shots, allowing play to slip after a missed free throw, lacking desire to chase down a defensive rebound.

Jaylen Brown had an uneven game Sunday, and he was fouled shooting a 3-pointer with 0.6 seconds left in the first half and the Celtics clinging to a 1-point lead. Brown missed all three free throws and it felt like the momentum was handed to the Bucks. The Celtics had played so well and worked so hard to build a lead and yet led by the slightest of margins.

Instead of lumbering into the second half, the Celtics began with a 15-7 run, including seven straight points from Tatum, to take a 77-68 lead. The Bucks would never draw within 7 points the rest of the way. Tatum and his teammates hit shots, they got timely stops, they forced Antetokounmpo into jump shots.

Jaylen Brown didn't back down from the challenge of facing Giannis Antetokounmpo when attacking the basket and in a fourth-quarter skirmish. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Boston outscored Milwaukee 77-57 in the second half, making a definitive statement that it’s still the best team in the NBA despite the recent rough stretch. The Celtics were even better than they were in Phoenix a few weeks ago, because this game had been highly anticipated. The two teams know each other so well. The Bucks quietly feel they would have won last year’s Eastern Conference finals had Khris Middleton been healthy.


Middleton did not play Sunday because of knee soreness. But it really didn’t matter. The Celtics outscored the Bucks by 27 points when Antetokounmpo was on the floor. He scored two baskets in the paint.

“We were fortunate to have great matchups for him,” Mazzulla said. “We’re fortunate to have the ability to throw different guys at him. I thought we were disciplined in our execution. He’s a great player and you [have to] be disciplined the whole game against him.”

Disciplined is the key word here. The Celtics remained that way throughout the game, even in adversity. Brown responded from that free throw faux pas with 14 points in the second half and just one turnover. The past two weeks have been a learning experience for Boston. The Celtics were being tabbed as by far the best team in the NBA, can’t-miss NBA finalists, until a poor stretch created considerable doubts about their sustainability.

“To come out here tonight, everybody’s watching, holiday spirit, the energy, I think it’s the perfect place to shake everything off and come out and play some good basketball,” Brown said. “Playing against a better team (than the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday) in Milwaukee and just playing the game, always constantly focusing on what’s in front of you. A lot of the time it’s me vs. me out there, the opponent doesn’t really matter.”

The Celtics’ response over the past 2½ games after being booed off the floor at halftime last week against the Indiana Pacers shows the sign of a maturing team. The goal of any NBA team is to prevent skids from turning into major slumps, rely on your talent and work ethic to rescue you from those customary rough patches.


The rough patches aren’t completely over, but the Celtics are back to the identity they established with their dominant November. Now they just have to build on their Christmas Day performance and continue to play the right way.

“I think that’s a sign that we do have a really good team, in all honesty,” Tatum said. “We’re not perfect. We’re gonna have some tough games and that’s fine. There’s nothing you can change about those games. It’s all about how do you respond. I think that is a key sign of a really good team.”

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @GwashburnGlobe.