Celtics return to dominance on offense, keeping Giannis Antetokounmpo at bay in win over Bucks

Even though it was just one shot in a long game with 91 others, it felt symbolic. A leading MVP contender, Tatum has guided the Celtics to the top of the NBA. Antetokounmpo, whose team would have overtaken Boston with a win, is a two-time MVP in the running to win the award again.

But that night, Milwaukee’s star was surpassed. Tatum made 14 for 22 shots and scored 41 points to lead Boston to an emphatic 139-118 win that moved that team further from their 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 honestly that’s just a sign that we have a really good team,” Tatum said. “We’re not perfect, nobody’s perfect and we’re going to have some bad moments, some tough games and that’s okay. You can’t change anything about these games. It just depends on how you react.”

It was clear the Celtics had some issues to work through during their recent slip-up, which saw them lose five out of six games, but concern within the organization remained low. Their searing 3-point shooting had overcorrected downward and there was no belief things would stay that way.

On Sunday, Boston’s offense returned to being the one that was so dominant earlier this season. The Celtics shot 58.8 percent from the field and 48.7 percent from the 3-point line.

“It felt good to be playing the way we know it again,” Tatum said. “We have the emotional understanding that it’s a long season and there will be great tracks and there will be some bad ones. It’s all about not snowing the bad guys and getting back on track sooner rather than later. And it also helps when we’re recording.”

Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla appreciated the searing shooting, but he understands his team will need to find ways to win when those percentages plummet. And when the shootout had turned sour, Boston was well-positioned to withstand it, thanks to play elsewhere.

The Celtics gave up just eight offensive rebounds and 13 second-chance points, and whenever Milwaukee seemed ready to put on a run, it was stopped.

“I think that has to become the identity of our team, really work on winning those factors consistently, whether we’re shooting the ball well or not,” Mazzulla said. “And I think in our last two games we kind of did that.”

The Celtics led 62-61 early in the third quarter when Tatum took over and scored every goal imaginable during his 20-point streak that extended Boston’s lead to 100-86 early in the fourth.

The Bucks scored the first 5 points of the fourth with Tatum on the bench to move to 9, but Jaylen Brown (29 points) helped ensure they didn’t get any closer. With Boston leading, 113-101, he broke out for 10 points in three minutes, and Milwaukee was never a threat again. The Celtics beat the Bucks 77-57 in the second half.

“They’re one of the top teams in our league and we’ve had to put in that kind of effort,” said Celtics forward Al Horford, “because if they don’t, they’re going to embarrass you.”

Though the Bucks shot 50 percent from the field, the improving Celtics defense disrupted them when it mattered. And it started 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 simply saying that all played important roles. In the first half, Boston turned Antetokounmpo into a perimeter shooter, and he fired off three 3-pointers that didn’t even come close to going in goal.

His frustration seemed to boil over in the game’s final minutes, when he fell to the ground after running into a Brown screen, then jumped up and pushed Boston forward, resulting in a technical foul.

“You just do your best to play with a natural physicality because he’s going to do the same,” said Celtics forward Grant Williams. “He won’t stop, he’s relentless, and so are we.”

Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.

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