On one of the NBA’s premier regular season stages, the Milwaukee Bucks rose to the occasion with a stirring, 19-point comeback victory to beat the Boston Celtics 117-113 Saturday at Fiserv Forum. The Bucks are 5-3 all-time on Christmas Day, but this was their first win in front of home fans on the holiday since 1968.
It was the Bucks’ first win over the Celtics this season and their third in a row to improve to 22-13. Boston dropped to 16-17. The teams conclude their season series April 7.
Milwaukee did not lead until Wesley Matthews hit a three-pointer with 30.3 seconds left, giving the Bucks a 114-113 lead.
The basket was the culmination of an incredible set of defensive plays, which began with Jrue Holiday stripping the ball from Jayson Tatum on a drive into the paint.
Holiday said he figured Tatum was going to go one-on-one and wasn’t really looking to pass, so once Tatum turned his back Holiday took a chance.
“He has a knack for the time and the moment,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said of Holiday’s key steal. “He’s got incredible hands, he’s got just great defensive instincts.”
Holiday and Khris Middleton then pushed the ball, playing some give-and-go with Holiday going up for a layup to tie the game – only Celtics big man Robert Williams III came flying in from behind for a block.
“I thought I heard him mumbling as he went off the court that he knew the big guy was coming behind him so luckily he blocked it to us, for the three,” the coach said. “So he’s not perfect but we’ll keep working with Jrue. Maybe he’ll be OK.”
Holiday said yes, he did know Williams III was bearing down.
“Oh yeah I did. I did. I tried to put it on the backboard quick. I also thought about dunking it but got scared. I know. Yeah, I know. That’s embarrassing. But that’s a nice block. But he blocked it to our team so it was cool. And Wesley hit the three.”
The ball stayed live, however, and George Hill corralled it and slung it to Matthews for the arena-rocking triple.
“Jrue came and made a great play and that’s just a part o the game, that’s how quickly it can turn, and just being ready at a moment’s notice,” Matthews said. “‘G’ being down there to make the play and I couldn’t believe he heard me. I’m yelling, I’m yelling, he kicked the ball out. They did the hard part. I just had to let it go. Luckily we were able to get another stop, make some free throws and this is a hell of a Christmas.”
Middleton added two free throws with 17.8 seconds left to make it 116-113, and then Antetokounmpo rejected a Williams dunk attempt with eight seconds left to prevent any final second heroics by the visitors.
Middleton then sunk a free throw with 5.8 seconds left to clinch it.
“That’s what it takes to win games,” Budenholzer said. “Boston played phenomenal. Lot of credit to those guys. They’re undermanned. They’ve got a lot going on with their roster and they were really good. The play by George to track it down and Wesley, he’s been so good for us since he’s been back. I think he’s having a huge impact on us winning and the mindset on the defensive end of the court, the toughness on the defensive end of the court. We need all those guys, it’s all got to fit together to be our best.”
These were stomach-turning final moments, but there also was unease about the game being played at all in the immediate run-up to tip-off. Boston arrived in Milwaukee with 12 players in the health and safety protocol and guard Dennis Schröder made it a baker’s dozen just under two hours before the ball was in the air. But, the Celtics were informed that four of those players were cleared to play.
The Bucks on the other hand, essentially came back to full strength Saturday morning.
Returning for the defending champions were:
Antetokounmpo, who had missed the last five games while in the health and safety protocol.
Bobby Portis, who missed four games while in the health and safety protocol. Since becoming a starter on Nov. 7, Portis has averaged 16.8 points and 9.6 rebounds in 21 games.
Donte DiVincenzo, who had been waiting longer for his return to the court after suffering an ankle injury in the first round of the playoffs. He was expected to make his season debut on Dec. 15, but missed the last 10 days while in the health and safety protocol. “He’s handled these 10 days; probably however long it took (to come back) he could handle 10 more days,” Budenholzer said before the game. “He’s developed some patience I think along with all the rehab. He’s in a great place, I think.”
Despite their depth issues the Celtics still had all-stars Tatum and Jaylen Brown in the backcourt, and the duo lit the Bucks up for a combined 61 points in a win in Boston on Dec. 13. Celtics guard Marcus Smart, a regular thorn in the side of the Bucks, also was available. Brown and Tatum scored 25 points apiece and Smart added 19 points and seven assists, and they were aided by timely put-backs from Williams (11 points, 14 rebounds) and baskets off the bench from Payton Pritchard (16 points) and former Buck Jabari Parker (nine).
In his return Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 36 points and 12 rebounds.
Holiday, who came back to play from the protocol last season, was asked what he saw from his teammate in his comeback and how difficult that was to do, and the point guard leaned into the microphone and recited Antetokounmpo’s stat line: “Thirty-six, five and 12.”
“I’m not really sure that he had COVID.”
Antetokounmpo scored 29 points in the second half and played just under 30 minutes. He said he was surprised to test positive for COVID-19 when the Bucks returned from Boston after the game on Dec. 13, but acknowledged he had minor symptoms.
“It felt good,” Antetokounmpo said of his return. “I tried to enjoy the game as much as possible, tried to set low expectations for myself. Obviously it was my first game back. I was very excited, excited to be around my teammates, excited to be around the fans, excited to play a game. You’re not nervous. You’re not nervous, obviously you gotta kind of dust the rust off a little bit. But I love this game. As I said I tried to set low expectations, just tried to be out there, make the right play, make good decisions. Did not care about the outcome of the game, just put myself in a position to be successful and my teammates and I knew that my instinct is going to put me in positions to be successful and I could help my team to win the game.”
Holiday added 17 points, three steals and three assists while Middleton had 17 points and seven assists. Portis had 16 points and 10 rebounds off the bench while Matthews had nine points.
Milwaukee missed its first five shots and had a turnover in the opening four minutes of the fourth quarter, which led to an 8-0 Boston run and a 102-90 lead. The Celtics added one to that advantage with two Tatum free throws at 109-96 with 5:28 to go, but then Antetokounmpo and Holiday (with some help from Matthews) combined to reel in the Celtics and set up the climatic final seconds.
Antetokounmpo scored six points and assisted on a Matthews three (which was set up by a Holiday steal) to make it 109-105, and then Antetokounmpo scored six straight points to tie the game 111-111 before Brown gave the Celtics a 113-111 lead with two free throws with 1:17 left, setting up Holiday and Matthews’ final heroics.
Antetokounmpo found his groove offensively in the third quarter, scoring 13 points in the first four minutes of the quarter to help cut a 15-point deficit to 71-65. Once Antetokounmpo subbed out, the Bucks started making threes.
After making just five from distance in the entire first half, the Bucks hit five in the third quarter – including DiVincenzo’s first points of the season – to cut the deficit to 89-86. Though Antetokounmpo returned for the final 2:02 and scored four more points, Smart and Parker accounted for five to give Boston a slight 94-90 lead going into the fourth.
Milwaukee scored 43 points in the quarter, with Antetokounmpo accounting for 17 and Holiday adding 11.
Boston led by as many as 19 points in the first half before taking a 62-47 lead into the break, thanks to a 10-for-23 (43.5%) team performance from behind the three-point line and the strong play of Brown, Tatum and Pritchard.
The Celtics trio combined for 43 points, outdueling the Bucks’ Big Three of Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday (combined 22 points).
Brown set the tone for the entire first half in the opening minutes of the game, making his first five shots to score 12 points in helping the Celtics out to a 19-7 lead in the first five minutes of the first quarter. Milwaukee cut the lead to 19-11 at the 6:10 mark, but that would be the closest they would get the rest of the half.
This despite the fact Tatum didn’t score until 1:24 was left in the first quarter, but he scored 10 points in the second quarter.
The Bucks made just 5 of 17 from behind the three-point line and shot 38.8% overall. They also turned it over seven times, which led to 14 Celtics points. Boston’ largest advantage came at the nine-minute mark of the second quarter when three Tatum free throws made it 46-27, but the Bucks eventually cut it to 52-42 after a pair of Middleton threes with 1:55 to go in the half.
But, Boston outscored Milwaukee 10-5 down the stretch to keep a comfortable margin.
Middleton led the Bucks with 11 points on 4 of 9 shooting, while Antetokounmpo was 3-for-8 for seven points in 13 minutes. Holiday was 2-for-5 for four points. Cousins started his fifth straight game, but his first alongside Antetokounmpo, and had eight points on 4 of 9 shooting to go with six rebounds.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo returns for win vs. Celtics on Christmas