Sluggish Boston Celtics blown out by Milwaukee Bucks, 104-91

Sluggish Boston Celtics blown out by Milwaukee Bucks, 104-91

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As the regular season nears its end, the Boston Celtics are a team with little left to play for, with the NBA’s best record locked up and a 15-game lead over second-place in the Eastern Conference. Facing those second-place Bucks on Tuesday night, they looked like it — a lackluster effort set up their second blowout loss to Milwaukee this season, as they trailed for the final 46 minutes en route to a 104-91 defeat.

The Celtics lacked the services of their starting frontcourt this evening, as both Kristaps Porzingis (hamstring, rest) and Al Horford (toe) sat out the contest. In their absence, Jayson Tatum had a respectable night — 22 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists — but the rotation otherwise appeared out-of-sorts and somewhat lackadaisical for much of the evening. For Milwaukee, trade deadline acquisition Patrick Beverley provided a spark with his best scoring output since joining the team (20 points), one of six Bucks to score at least 12 points on the night.

The Bucks enjoyed the upper hand in the early minutes of this one, riding an comically hot start from Brook Lopez to start the game on a 13-5 run and open up a double-digit lead within the first six minutes of play. Lopez drilled four of his first five three-point attempts, powering a Milwaukee offense that had the Celtics reeling. It was a start reminiscent of the team’s second meeting, an early January 135-102 beatdown. The Bucks led by as many as 19 points, missed just five shots, and took a 37-21 advantage into the second quarter.

A trend of note in the first half was the Celtics’ inability to score from two-point range. They actually shot the ball reasonably well for most of the half, nearly matching the Bucks’ three-point output with nine makes, but they were completely stifled by the Milwaukee defense inside the arc. Possession after possession saw the Celtics bully their way into the point, only to come up empty under a swarm of Bucks defenders. They shot just 8-of-24 from two-point range in the half.

Milwaukee’s lead nudged over the 20-point threshold early in the second quarter behind a 10-2 run that opened the frame. The run prompted coach Joe Mazzulla’s third timeout of the game, each of which came in hopes of derailing the Bucks’ momentum. The third time was the charm, but only to an extent — the Bucks’ offense finally cooled, but the Celtics failed to make up the difference with their own scoring attack. The game hit a nadir when Brown swiped an errant Milwaukee pass but failed to convert the contested dunk attempt that followed, and entered the halftime break having made no inroads on the lead, trailing 63-43.

In the modern NBA, a 20-point lead doesn’t mean as much as it used to, especially not to an offense as explosive as these Celtics. As play resumed in the third quarter, then, Boston was far from dead and buried. But while the Bucks didn’t extend their advantage in the early minutes of the second half, it wasn’t due to any inspiring play from the Celtics. Only Tatum appeared to have a pulse, cashing in on a pair of tough threes. The near-one-man show paid some dividends; Tatum found Derrick White in the corner with just under four minutes to play to cut the Milwaukee lead to 15.

Of note: Antetokounmpo appeared to suffer an injury in the late minutes of the third quarter. The Bucks’ superstar grabbed at his leg after an inbounds pass, sitting down on the court to stop play. Milwaukee’s medical staff escorted him off the court, with Antetokounmpo limping into the tunnel. The injury was classified as a left calf strain, and he did not return to the game.

After Antetokounmpo’s departure, the Celtics found a spark. Spearheaded by a red-hot Tatum, who slammed home an assertive dunk and converted another three-pointer, they took advantage of a discombobulated Bucks team to trim the lead to 11 points entering the final quarter, 78-67.

Milwaukee’s response was swift — a 7-0 in two minutes behind some crafty scoring from Khris Middleton. Brown converted a pair of baskets to staunch the bleeding, but an incredibly deep 32-foot three-pointer from AJ Green felt like a back-breaker, establishing an 88-71 lead for the Bucks with nine minutes left in regulation. Minutes later, after a Milwaukee timeout, Mazzulla appeared ready to wave the white flag. He emptied his bench and the Bucks coasted easily to the finish.

Next up, the Celtics head back to TD Garden for the first of a three-game homestand to close the season, hosting the New York Knicks this Thursday at 7:30 PM EST on NBC Sports Boston.

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