Celtics hold on late to claim first meeting vs. revamped Bucks: 10 takeaways

Celtics

Jaylen Brown was excellent in a bounce-back performance.

Celtics Bucks
Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown and center Kristaps Porzingis high-five. Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

The Celtics beat the Bucks 119-116 after they took a big lead and then held on down the stretch, claiming the first showdown between the two Eastern Conference powerhouses.

Here are the takeaways.

1. The game started as an early-season coronation for a Celtics team that has looked like the best roster in the NBA through the first 15 games of the season. The Celtics ran out to a big lead and punished the Bucks in all the ways that have been concerning for Milwaukee so far — point-of-attack defense, depth aside from Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton’s decline, etc. Kristaps Porzingis was dunking and mean-mugging. Jaylen Brown was windmilling and dishing. The Celtics were cruising and having a great time for roughly 42 minutes.

The lasting image might be how the Celtics allowed the Bucks to bother them down the stretch, and how Damian Lillard bombed away from deep to close the gap. It was a reminder that the Celtics’ late-game offense still leaves a lot to be desired, even with all of the myriad improvements Brad Stevens has made to the roster. The perception of the Celtics-Bucks rivalry leaving Wednesday’s game might be that the two teams are essentially a coin flip, which doesn’t really sum up the Celtics’ performance even though it could be accurate.

Still, perception doesn’t matter very much in the long run, especially on Nov. 22, and it wouldn’t have mattered even if the Celtics beat the Bucks by 30. What does matter is the Celtics claimed the first game in their series against the Bucks and now need to win one of two remaining games to clinch the tiebreaker. What matters is that the Celtics learn how to play together now so that if they face the Bucks when games matter, they are ready.

To that end, Joe Mazzulla was encouraged by Wednesday’s game.

“I felt like tonight, it was what we were the first 10-11 games before the road trip, where we were playing with high effort, and we were playing with connectivity, and we showed moments of great execution,” Mazzulla said. “And as long as we play hard and as long as we’re connected, we can constantly get better at the execution piece. I saw that tonight, and I didn’t see that in a few games prior.”

2. Jrue Holiday struggled for much of the game matched up against his former team. When he finally made his first (and only) field goal of the game — a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter — he raised his arms to the sky in a combination of relief and frustration with a wry look.

“It’s just one game, don’t really need to harp on one game,” Brown said. “It shouldn’t even be a story. We need Jrue and when our backs are against the wall and we need him the most, he’ll be there.”

Holiday did defend Antetokounmpo well in some possessions, which is a positive sign for the Celtics. Fans might be on Holiday for missing shots and turning the ball over in the last few contests, but having a player who can more than credibly guard Damian Lillard and/or Giannis Antetokounmpo on the same possession is quite the luxury.

3. Predictably, the Bucks had a lot trouble guarding Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum at the point of attack. Brown in particular had a phenomenal game after back-to-back tough performances — 26 points on 10-for-16 shooting to go with eight assists.

“Jaylen just controlling at the end of the third quarter, the last six minutes of the third quarter, I thought he did a great job just controlling the entire game on both ends of the floor,” Mazzulla said.

The Bucks have the NBA’s 22nd-best offense, per Cleaning the Glass. They have a ton of offensive firepower, but a defense that porous is asking for trouble when the postseason rolls around.

4. Al Horford was excellent on both ends, predictably defending Antetokounmpo well and submitting the kind of rock-solid performance that seems to be his norm against his favorite individual matchups. He finished with the hint of a triple-double — 11 points, eight rebounds and six assists off the bench.

5. Porzingis is shooting 28.3 from 3-point range over his last 10 games, but he has a net rating of 8.3. He’s scoring a ton around the rim, which makes the Celtics essentially unguardable for lengthy stretches given that his gravity still makes teams panic.

6. The Celtics ran a fast break with Jaylen Brown and Sam Hauser that ended in a lob dunk.

Hauser was the one who threw it down.

“I looked at him. He looked at me. And that was all the confirmation I needed,” Brown said. “We locked eyes and I said, ‘F— it.’ He looked at me like he was ready so I threw it to him and he followed through. So shout out to Sam.”

“Sam can do a lot of things that people think he can’t do,” Mazzulla added. “… But no, I did not think I’d see that tonight.”

The Bucks attacked Hauser’s defense repeatedly and had some success, but they got as good as they gave: Hauser finished with 10 points, made two out of three 3-pointers and was +10 in 20 minutes as the Celtics won by three.

7. Porzingis’s technical count is now up to eight, which means he is halfway to a suspension on Nov. 22, after he was hit with a quick one in the second half for clapping his hands one time at an official.

In Porzingis’s mild defense, the officials were being worked pretty hard up until that point on both sides, and his technical might have been at least in part a reaction to all of the chirping.

Still, he knows he needs to be smarter.

“Clapping hands doesn’t look good,” he said. “And just small things that I have to be aware of and not get caught into that emotion in that moment, because I just cannot keep doing this.

“And it’s not the end of the world, but definitely have to be smarter about it and that’s it. Again, I’m just enjoying playing here and being full of emotion and that emotion is coming out maybe a little bit.”

8. The Celtics started walking the dog (letting the ball roll in front of them as the clock ran down) with about five minutes remaining, which is always as sure a sign as any that a lead is about to get chewed away. How much lead gets chewed away is always the big question. The Celtics got away with it on Wednesday.

9. Payton Pritchard continues to shake off his slow start: He scored 10 points on 4-for-7 shooting for 10 points in a positive sign for the Celtics’ bench.

10. The Celtics take on the Magic in Orlando on Friday, which will be yet another measuring stick for a Celtics opponent. The Magic just knocked off the Nuggets to improve to 10-5 and are tied for third in the Eastern Conference. They might be Full Stop Good this year, instead of Future Good. Throw in the In-Season Tournament implications of Friday’s game, and the Celtics’ return to action the day after Thanksgiving will quietly be nearly as compelling as the game the day before it.


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