The Celtics rallied from a 19-point, first-half deficit to top the Milwaukee Bucks by 11 points Wednesday evening, the two teams’ 21st matchup in the past three years.
“It was just one of those nights for us where we had to dig deep, deep down inside ourselves and trust one another and lean on each other and come out with this victory,” said shooting guard Marcus Smart.
Here’s what we saw:
1. A hit to Boston’s defensive prowess, forward Jaylen Brown missed the game with an illness. Coach Brad Stevens said the initial plan was to have Brown, Smart, and Semi Ojeleye take turns containing reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Smart started for Brown, and logged the most minutes defending Antetokounmpo. He and Ojeleye limited the Greek Freak to seven points on 2-for-4 shooting, according to the NBA’s tracking data. Smart also forced three turnovers in 17 possessions defended. Antetokounmpo finished with 26 points on 10-for-15 shooting.
2. For a team whose biggest concern heading into the season was interior defense, the Celtics have held up surprisingly well against size (Joel Embiid, Sixers; Marc Gasol, Raptors; and now Antetokounmpo) four games in. Center Enes Kanter remained out with a left knee contusion, which further ramped up the challenge.
3. Smart was seemingly the lone bright spot of the first half, as the game seemed to be headed toward a good ol’ fashioned thrashing. While the Celtics struggled to generate any offensive rhythm, Smart continued to provide the spark the team needed to hang around, taking charges, pestering Antetokounmpo, and knocking down shots, including back-to-back three-pointers that helped things from spiraling in the second quarter. He set the tone early, forcing a jump ball off a tie-up in the first minute. Smart agitated Antetokounmpo throughout the game, and both were whistled for technical fouls in the second half.
4. Even when he wasn’t in the game, Smart was locked in. Standing on the sidelines, he stayed active by cheering on his teammates and occasionally pleading with the refs.
5. Trailing 58-42 at halftime, coach Brad Stevens noted he was encouraged by the team’s vibe in the locker room. “They were saying all the right things,” he said. “They were thinking all the right things.”
6. After a first half in which they shot a combined 4-for-18 from the field, forwards Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward found their strides in the second. The pair erupted for 21 of the team’s 38 third-quarter points, shooting a combined 72.7 percent. The two stayed hot in the fourth, shooting a combined 70 percent.
7. Hayward finished with his first 20-point, 10-rebound game as a Celtic. He credited his teammates for encouraging him to keep attacking after his chilly 1-for-5 start extended well into the second quarter. “Sometimes that’s all it takes is just some confidence from other guys,” he said. Hayward showed versatility, with his seven second-half buckets — highlighted by an up-and-under layup — coming at the rim, in the midrange, and behind the arc.
Gordon Hayward adjusts for the left-handed finish! #Celtics
Watch the 4th on ESPN pic.twitter.com/BHgLUw9qi2
— NBA (@NBA) October 31, 2019
8. Tatum showed flashes of his superstar potential, rousing the crowd with an electric 20 second-half points. When he knocked down a three in the final seconds of the third quarter, he high-fived retired Celtics forward Paul Pierce, who was sitting courtside. Tatum was a perfect 4-for-4 from three-point range in the second half, although his struggles in the first half did not go unnoticed. “I needed to play better,” he said. “The game’s never over. We’ve been down before. We know what it takes to come back. I had to do more and be better.”
9. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer called his team’s defensive effort in the second half “discouraging” and “concerning.” Milwaukee surrendered 74 points during that span. “It’s a game of momentum,” Budenholzer said. “It’s a game of runs. They started feeling good, they were getting stops, they started making shots, and everything flipped. You got to be able to sustain runs like that, sustain hits like that.”
10. Celtics starters accounted for 108 of the team’s 116 points. Tatum, Hayward, and point guard Kemba Walker scored 78 of those 108.
11. Walker got to the free-throw line a game-high 15 times, the most by a Celtic since Isaiah Thomas in February 2017. Stevens called Walker “fearless” in the paint. “He’s got an athletic ability very few people talk about,” Stevens said. “He’s got the ability to stop. He’s got the ability to decelerate and pop right up. He gets fouled a lot because of that.”
12. On the night of Game 7 of the World Series, Stevens used one of his favorite baseball analogies to describe how the Celtics stormed back: “Sometimes you have to hit singles to come back because you hit home runs to get down.” Stevens said the team kept “trying to hit it out of the park” in order to cut into the lead but didn’t give themselves a chance until they settled down and hit singles.
Halloween bonus: I’m with Daniel Theis and Romeo Langford.