While this four-game road trip through Houston, Miami, New York, and Boston only took the Bucks away for a week, it seems that fatigue from yesterday’s win at MSG made defeating a rested and healthy Celtics (who hadn’t played since Friday) squad nigh impossible. In addition to the sting of a 117-103 defeat, Milwaukee lost Khris Middleton to a knee injury, but early indications do not suggest his situation is dire:
Budenholzer: “We’ll know more tomorrow, but I think there’s some hope that it’s not serious. But you’ve got to weigh it and give it time.” https://t.co/1igXTH54Ud— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) December 14, 2021
Jayson Tatum annihilated any pair(s) of tired legs the Bucks threw at him en route to a season-high 42 on 16/25 shooting, including 7/13 on three-point attempts. The man was simply on fire. Jaylen Brown returned from a hamstring injury to add 19 and Grant Williams pitched in 17 on 5/7 shooting, all from downtown. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday each led the Bucks with 20.
On the strength of an unexpected lineup (more on that below), Milwaukee closed out the first on an 11-2 run as Boston went cold, leading 30-21 at the end of one. Jaylen Brown, who returned from a 5 game absence due to a hamstring injury, limped off the court after only six minutes, appearing to have a banged-up knee. He iced it and would return in the second without much incident. The second quarter was an entirely different story: the Bucks committed 7 turnovers and missed six consecutive threes. A Jayson Tatum three with a minute left until half capped off a 13-3 Boston run and regained them a one-point lead, which held until the scoreboard read 51-50 at the buzzer. Tatum had 15 and Brown had 12; Milwaukee had only Pat Connaughton in double figures with 10.
While the Bucks cleaned up their turnover issues in the third, their shooting woes worsened and they were outscored by ten, just as they had been in the second. A Grayson Allen three managed to cut Boston’s lead to 68-65 but from there the Celtics grabbed firm control, closing the quarter up 85-74 as Tatum began to cook. As the third ended, Khris Middleton landed badly on a rebound attempt and crumpled to the floor. He was able to limp off the court and to the locker room under his own power but was not seen again. The initial report out of the trainer’s room is a hyperextended left knee.
After that dispiriting loss, Tatum made sure the Celtics would cruise largely undeterred from a double-digit win, with the Bucks getting no closer than 9. Tatum’s 16 fourth-quarter points came on 6/8 shooting including 3/4 from behind the arc. All told he missed just 4 of his 15 second-half shots—and just one of those misses came inside the three-point line—for 27 points and essentially took care of the Bucks himself with no other Celtic scoring more than 8. Bud cut his losses and subbed in the deep bench with 2:28 left as Boston finished with a 14-point victory.
What Did We Learn?
If last night was any indication, Giannis may have taken a pummeling these last few games. Obviously, he was tired after yesterday’s matinee win, but it wasn’t so much his lack of speed or burst that stuck out to me. Instead, he seemed sapped of his typical strength and power. While Marcus Smart and Grant Williams are both stout defenders with plenty of bulk on their frames, Giannis had trouble backing them down in the post or maneuvering past them on his way to the rim, pulling the ball back out and settling for plenty of jumpers. It’s unlike Giannis to struggle with smaller defenders, no matter how solidly built they are.
Khris Middleton is likely going to miss several games. Middleton was having a pretty bad game before the injury (4 points on 2/8 shooting plus 3 turnovers in 24 minutes) and a few poor decisions on defense, but the main worry now is obviously health. Hyperextended knees have been common occurrences recently among Bucks: there was of course Giannis’ famous knee injury in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals which by some stroke of luck was a simple hyperextension that kept him out two games. George Hill also returned to the rotation yesterday—he sat out on the second half of the back-to-back—which kept him out about a week-and-a-half. Given that Middleton may not have undergone imaging in Boston and was deemed fit enough to travel, it’s reasonable to be optimistic that this injury hasn’t resulted in significant damage. Nevertheless, he’s likely out for the next several games at least.
Jrue Holiday put together another solid night of scoring. Like last week’s effort in Miami, however, this one came in a loss. He did his best to keep Milwaukee in this one in the third with 11 points on an inefficient 11 shots, though he was the only Buck really able to generate scoring opportunities himself. All night he fought through larger Boston defenders to his spots and his early 8 points on perfect shooting was the main ingredient behind Milwaukee’s hot start, as Giannis was scoreless until the second quarter.
Bobby Portis had a rough night defensively. The Celtics attacked the rim early and while they did not outscore the Bucks down low (a 44-38 Milwaukee advantage in the paint), Tatum and company did plenty of damage within 6 feet of the hoop. He was tired like all the Bucks were, but like the rest of the team, the issues weren’t strictly physical. Portis looked a bit out of his depth as Boston rim-runners got around his screens or to the dunker spot. With Portis missing more than a few rotations, cutters always had options once they got to the restricted area. Milwaukee can succeed defensively against many opponents without Brook Lopez protecting the rim and Boston is a team I’d have put into that group given their lack of size. Last night it seemed like Portis lacked the focus to make that happen in addition to road-weary limbs.
Bonus Bucks Bits
- That 11-2 run I mentioned earlier? It came during a four-minute stretch of this lineup, which I’m sure has never played before: Holiday-Connaughton-Hood-Mamu-Cousins. I have no idea how that worked so well.
- Milwaukee’s turnover woes in the second quarter can be blamed on some pretty loose handles and too many off-target passes. Though they only ended up with 14 on the night to Boston’s 13 and held a 24-15 edge in points off turnovers, Bud specifically pointed to their inability to retain possession as a key reason that the Celtics grabbed the lead.
- The other reason Bud cited for the Celtics second-quarter surge was Grant Williams’ shotmaking, who is shooting 43.2% from distance this year on 3.3 per game. He was left wide open on more than a few of them.
- Bucks opponents shot the three pretty well during this road trip on high volume (46.8 3PA/game). The latter is nothing new, but Boston outshot their season 3P% by 9.4% in this one, much like Miami (11.7% higher) and Houston (7.5% higher). Shooters were much better covered in those games, however.
- Boston shot a cool 42.7% from downtown, hitting 20 treys on a whopping 47 shots. By math alone, this probably was enough to beat Milwaukee, who made 11/36 (30.6%). Making up such a chasm is very tough.
- Like I’ve mentioned, I don’t think fatigue is the only reason for this. While there were some solid stops early on—most notably back-to-back Boston shot clock violations early in the second—the Bucks overhelped or doubled onto players who don’t warrant it on plenty of possessions, leading to plenty of drive-and-kick open threes. Rotations were lethargic and the C’s had the Bucks in the proverbial blender often, needing to scramble to cover open men. Boston could easily move the ball around the perimeter, though, tiring the Bucks out even more.
- About 30 seconds into the second quarter, Bobby Portis hit a trey and it would be the last one the Bucks would make for a while. From there, they missed nine straight threes until Allen made one at the 5:54 mark of the third.
- At one point in the third, while Boston’s lead was still hovering around 5 or 6, all of the Bucks’ reserves had a positive plus/minus and the starters (minus Holiday at +1) all had negatives in the double-digits. The eye test backs this up: members of the starting lineup were shelled in the second.
- Jrue Holiday was the primary defender on Tatum at the start of the night, with Middleton getting a lot of time on the Celtics star too. In previous seasons, the Bucks often defended Tatum pretty well. Neither of them had much last night. Granted, no NBA defender can stop someone when they’re going supernova like Tatum in the fourth, hitting essentially every shot left and right. The effort and results were both underwhelming in the first half, however.
- This game was the second in a stretch of 5 in 7 days for Milwaukee, who will welcome Donte DiVincenzo back tomorrow evening at home against Indiana. That includes a home-road back-to-back against New Orleans and Cleveland on Friday and Saturday. Ideally, they get additional reinforcements with the return of Wesley Matthews from the health and safety protocols, who has missed the past two matchups.