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Celtics breeze past the Bucks

Courtesy of an assist from Marcus Smart (not pictured), Celtics center Kelly Olynyk (41) throws down a dunk over Milwaukee Bucks guard Rashad Vaughn (20) on Friday night at TD Garden.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Entering the Celtics’ game against the Bucks on Friday, Isaiah Thomas had led the team in scoring in 17 consecutive games, a franchise record. There had been stretches, as he hoisted 3-pointers and whirled through the lane for impossible layups, when it seemed as if the streak would carry on indefinitely.

But this night brought unusual stars and a lopsided score. So Thomas sat on the bench in the fourth quarter and watched as Tyler Zeller tied his career high with 26 points in Boston’s 124-109 win at TD Garden. Thomas finished with 20 points.

“I’m so mad at [Zeller],” Thomas said before flashing a wide smile. “No, no. I’m actually proud of him, because he just works so hard and he took advantage of his opportunity tonight. I’m proud of him having a good game like he did.”


Zeller said he was unaware of Thomas’s streak until it was relayed to him after the game.

“I think he’ll be happy with the way we won,” Zeller said. “I think he really just wants to win, and that’s what we love about him.”

The Celtics know that if they win the rest of their games they will be the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. With the Heat’s loss to the Magic, Boston is now tied with the Hawks for third.

The Celtics play in Atlanta on Saturday night, kicking off a closing stretch that is guaranteed to include their first-round opponent, as they face the Hornets on Monday and the Heat in the season-finale on Wednesday.

“We have the opportunity to take it into our own hands, you know?” Evan Turner said.

Turner, who missed Wednesday’s game against the Pelicans with an eye abrasion, returned on Friday. So this was a rare game when the Celtics were whole, giving coach Brad Stevens plenty to work with as he hatched a plan to stop the Bucks.


Boston has had success using smaller, more-skilled lineups under Stevens, but against Milwaukee and its burly post players and its 6-foot-11 point guard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, some size was required. So in stepped Zeller, the 7-footer who was averaging just 11.9 minutes this season after averaging 21.1 last year.

As the Bucks looked to trap Boston’s guards and force them into quick decisions, Zeller continuously found space near the basket. The Celtics also looked to run with their big men. They finished the game with 70 points in the paint.

“You could tell they put emphasis on running our bigs, and that’s when they took control of the game,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. “We were playing uphill from that point. They continued to run in that second half. Their bigs just kept putting pressure on our bigs, and we couldn’t get back.”

Afterward, Zeller smiled and seemed almost surprised how easily he had been able to find openings.

“Somehow I just ended up wide open every time I caught it,” he said, “and just had to make a couple layups.”

The Celtics shot 56.4 percent from the field, scoring with little resistance for much of the game. They also had assists on 35 of their 44 baskets and forced 19 turnovers. Turner and Marcus Smart had 9 assists apiece off the bench. It turned out to be a breezy win that was so lopsided fans broke into a wave for a stretch in the second half.


Early in the game, though, the Bucks did not look like a team with nothing to play for. Milwaukee made 8 of its first 10 shots, and when Antetokounmpo hit his second 3-pointer with 3:09 left, the Bucks suddenly had a 30-19 edge. But the strong play did not last, and neither did the lead.

Both teams shot above 56 percent in the first half, and the Celtics went to the break with a 65-58 advantage.

Boston took control in the third quarter, shooting 58.8 percent from the field and holding the Bucks to 33.3 percent shooting. When Zeller threw down a dunk and then made a layup as he was fouled, the Celtics’ lead was stretched to 92-78.

Antetokounmpo, who had shredded Boston’s defense for 27 points through 2½ quarters, picked up his fifth foul with 4:27 left in the third. He went to the bench and did not score again, and Milwaukee struggled to find points without him.

“That was probably the best things that happened,” Stevens said.

Eight consecutive free throws gave the Celtics a 101-80 edge, their largest. The lead was not threatened after that, and Boston was able to rest its starters in the fourth quarter. That meant that Thomas’s streak was over, but it also meant another victory was imminent.