BOSTON – Jared Sullinger made a surprise return to the court on Friday night, but the big man and his teammates could not slow down the Milwaukee Bucks.
Milwaukee’s O.J. Mayo scored 24 points off the bench as the visitors ran away with a 110-101 victory over the Celtics at the TD Garden. Isaiah Thomas led the Celtics with 23 points in the costly setback, while Jonas Jerebko added 17 points.
After trailing by two points at the half, the Bucks surged ahead with a 18-2 run in the third quarter. The Bucks shot a scorching 60 percent from the field in the decisive third quarter and outscored the Celtics by a 13-point margin (36-23) over the pivotal 12 minutes. Milwaukee forward Ersan Ilyasova exploded for13 of his 17 points in the frame. Seven different Bucks scored in double figures in the victory.
The hosts closed the deficit to four points in the latter stages of the fourth quarter, but could not get any closer than that in the game’s closing minutes.
“We just weren’t aggressive on the defensive end and we just weren’t playing hard enough to be honest,” Celtics guard Avery Bradley said after the disappointing loss. “I don’t feel like we were on a consistent basis and they were scoring in transition. They were really getting whatever they wanted, they were posting our guards up and picking us apart.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens attempted to turn to Sullinger to help slow down the Bucks in the third quarter, but the big man failed to do much in his first game action since Feb. 11. The power forward missed two shots and was scoreless in just three minutes of action. The 23-year-old sat out the team’s last 24 games with what the Celtics believed was a season-ending stress fracture in his left foot.
“[It’s] not fair to him to assess it,” Stevens said of Sullinger’s return. “I don’t think that’s fair. I think its three minutes of getting the cobwebs out, it’s probably not enough.”
Sullinger will have another chance to shake off the rust on Saturday night in a crucial game against the Toronto Raptors. Friday’s loss dropped the Celtics behind with Miami for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. The idle Heat currently lead Boston by a half-game, with just six games remaining for the Celtics in the regular season. Brooklyn holds a 1.5 game edge over Boston in the No. 7 spot.
“I’ve said this going into this,” Stevens said. “This is one of the toughest stretches of seven games of our season. We’re going to have to play great to win. We are one down in the first seven, so we are going to have to play great [Saturday] night.”