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Defensive stand helps Bucks slip past Celtics

On a night where both offenses struggled to make shots, it made perfect sense that two defensive plays dominated the final seconds.

Eric Bledsoe struggled mightily on offense, but his defense on the final play of the game was the difference for the Milwaukee Bucks in a 98-97 victory over the Boston Celtics Thursday night at Fiserv Forum.

Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 30 points, 13 rebounds and six assists,

Both teams struggled offensively throughout in the first game back from the weeklong all-star break, Milwaukee shot 42% (37 for 88), but supplemented that total by making 14 of 39 (35.9%) 3-pointers. The biggest one of those came when Khris Middleton drained an absolutely cold-blooded triple from straight out top to give the Bucks a 98-95 lead with 32.5 seconds left.

Boston answered with Kyrie Irving’s quick drive for a layup with 27.5 seconds left after a timeout.

The Bucks tried to use as much clock as possible but ran into big problems when Marcus Smart tied up Antetokounmpo for a jump ball with 3.7 seconds left. More important, there was just 0.2 on the shot clock. That meant the Bucks could not get a legal shot off as the clock started on the first touch of the tip.

The Celtics took possession of the ball with 3.5 seconds left and called a timeout. Irving got the ball but was going away from the basket. He turned and drove, but the Bucks were able to force him to his left, and his running attempt was hotly contested by Eric Bledsoe and bounced hard off the back rim.

The Bucks improved to 44-14 with their third straight win. Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon each added 15 points for the Bucks. Middleton’s go-ahead 3-pointer with 32.5 seconds left was his only field goal of the second half. Middleton also equaled Antetokounmpo with 13 rebounds.

Irving led the Celtics (37-22) with 22 points but went a freezing 9 for 27. His 3-pointer with 2:48 left gave the Celtics their first lead since the second quarter at 90-89. Irving’s scoop layup after briefly losing the ball gave Boston a 92-91 lead with 1:37 left.

Bledsoe got into the lane to put the Bucks back on top — just his second basket of the game — and two free throws by Antetokounmpo gave the Bucks a 95-92 lead with 1:07 left, before Al Horford drilled a 3-pointer to set up the finish.

The Bucks have equaled their victory total for all of last season with 24 games still to play. They also moved to 1 1/2 games ahead of Toronto for the top spot in the East. The Celtics dropped to the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference.

The Bucks’ final two field goals of the night ended up being the only second-half field goals for Bledsoe and Middleton.

The game marked the Bucks debut for trade-deadline acquisition Nikola Mirotic, who tallied eight points and made two 3-pointers in six attempts.

The shooting numbers on both sides came out poor with just a few exceptions. Along with Irving’s 9 for 27, Horford went 8 for 21, Marcus Morris went 4 for 12 and Smart went 2 for 8. On the Bucks’ side, Middleton went 5 for 14, Brook Lopez went 4 for 11 and Bledsoe went 2 for 9.

Still, the Bucks managed to pull out the victory, their 15th in 17 games.

The Bucks host the Minnesota Timberwolves Saturday before embarking on a five-game road trip with a game at Chicago and four games out west.

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