BOSTON – When asked if he experienced relief going into a clash with the injury-riddled Boston Celtics on Friday night, Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer couldn’t come up with a word better than “sickos” to describe his team’s mentality.
“You want to play teams when they’re healthy and they test you,” he said. “You learn more about yourself. …
“I don’t think you ever have relief or want to play teams when they’re banged up.”
As much as that may be the case, not having to go against the likes of Bucks-killers Al Horford and Marcus Morris had to be a welcome opportunity, especially the way those two, in particular, vexed the Bucks (35 total points and 9 of 19 on three-pointers) in the teams’ first meeting Nov. 1.
When you’re trying to exorcise the demons of dropping five straight games at TD Garden including four in a row in the playoffs – not to mention trying to get back to even in the fight for the three-game, regular-season tiebreaker – you accept whatever fortunate situation is put in front of you.
BOX SCORE: Bucks 120, Celtics 107
The Bucks certainly did take advantage, overwhelming the Celtics’ depleted roster while holding a firm grasp on the score for much of the game in a 120-107 victory at TD Garden.
“It’s big for our team. The last time we won here I think (was) a year or so ago,” said Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, referencing Milwaukee’s 2017-’18 season-opening win. “We haven’t lost twice to the same team this year, so it’s just a good feeling to come in here and get a win here.”
Milwaukee took a double-digit lead in the final minute of the first quarter and the margin never dropped under 10 the rest of the night.
Antetokounmpo carried the offensive load with 30 points, doing nearly half of his work at the free-throw line, where he was 13 of 17. Outside of those points, Antetokounmpo was impressive throughout, relentlessly attacking the rim, including going behind his back on drives not once but twice, and even connected on a three-pointer for good measure.
The one-sided affair didn’t start that way. In fact, off the jump it was the total opposite.
The Bucks, who tied a season high with 21 turnovers on the night, were whistled for three straight offensive fouls early on. It was then that the Celtics took advantage, starting a perfect 4 for 4 from the field to vault to a 10-1 lead.
After some strong words from Budenholzer during a timeout, though, it was all Bucks.
Antetokounmpo busted out his first behind-the-back dribble on the way to a two-handed dunk, with the thundering jam shaking Milwaukee loose and sparking a scoring avalanche. Thanks in part to Khris Middleton pouring in nine of his 21 points in a three-plus-minute span, the Bucks roared to an 18-1 response to the Celtics’ opening spurt and never looked back.
“We’ve started off like that many games this season and then we came back,” Middleton said. “Just held our composure and got back to what we do.”
Tony Snell took the scoring torch from Middleton, depositing 10 of his 15 points down the stretch of the first quarter. Thon Maker then finished the period with one of his four three-pointers on the night to give Milwaukee a 35-22 lead heading into the second.
The break in the action didn’t cool down the Bucks. A 10-0 run – including a pair of Maker corner threes – over less than two minutes early in the second brought the margin up to 20. Two drives by Eric Bledsoe and Antetokounmpo putting back his own miss ballooned the lead to 26 with just under five minutes until halftime.
That culminated a 57-22 run over the 16 1/2 minutes following Milwaukee’s first-quarter timeout and drew out the boo birds at TD Garden as Boston took a timeout of its own.
As unassailable as that lead looked, though, the Celtics found ways to make things close. They got the margin down to 11 multiple times but never closer as the Bucks struggled out of the break.
Antetokounmpo scored Milwaukee’s first 14 points in the third quarter while the rest of the Bucks couldn’t get anything going on offense. Defensively, the Bucks were a step behind where they had been in the first half, slow to match Boston’s uptick in intensity.
But every time the margin got to 11, Milwaukee found an answer. One of the most pivotal stops came late in the third quarter when Malcolm Brogdon committed a turnover and Jaylen Brown went the opposite way on the break. He didn’t finish it with a layup, though.
Bucks forward D.J. Wilson got between Brown and the basket, keeping his arms vertical and avoiding a foul. With no whistle, the ball moved to Snell at the other end, who coolly sank a three-pointer.
The Celtics again got within 11 in the fourth, but Gordon Hayward missed a free throw and – with Antetokounmpo on the bench – the Bucks got a three-pointer and and-one from Eric Bledsoe on successive possessions to rebuild their lead.
Following the game, the Celtics, which have now lost three straight, had an extended closed-door meeting in their locker room. Across the hall, the Bucks celebrated their four-game win streak and the end of their woes at TD Garden by vibing to a playlist curated by Maker.
Antetokounmpo said he didn’t take any satisfaction in being the team that prompted the Celtics to hold a meeting, saying it probably has more to do with Boston’s season. He fully expects the Celtics to bounce back and get on track.
However, Antetokounmpo didn’t mince words when saying – like he did even when the Bucks lost to the Celtics in the playoffs last year — that the Bucks are the better team.
“I think talent-wise we’re better and obviously this year our offense it’s way different,” he said. “We’re playing better defensively and we’ve added some pieces to the team – Brook (Lopez), Pat (Connaughton), other guys, Ersan (Ilyasova) – that helped this team become great.”
If Milwaukee is going to stretch its win streak to five games, it’ll have to do it as part of the toughest back-to-back on the Eastern seaboard. The Bucks go from Boston to Miami — about 1,250 air miles, the equivalent of going from Milwaukee to Salt Lake City — for a 7 p.m. game Saturday against the Heat.
“Everybody’s got their tough back-to-backs,” Budenholzer said after initially starting to lament how late the team would arrive in Miami. “This is one of the toughest in the league I think. Our guys have to be ready.”
Patched up: Ersan Ilyasova, who suffered a fractured nose Sunday, underwent successful surgery Friday. The surgery was performed by Sachin Pawar of the Froedtert & Medical College of Wisconsin health network under the supervision of Bucks team physician William Raasch.
A timeline for his return has not been officially established.