Watch CBS News

Message sent: Celtics put NBA on notice with blowout win over Bucks

BOSTON -- There is no debating that the Celtics have been frustrating to watch since the All-Star break. It was hard to imagine they'd keep up their torrid pace from the first half of the season, but these post-break Celtics have had some really disappointing evenings.

It's led to a little (OK, a lot) of doubt to creep in about their championship chances. How can a team that blows late leads and loses to the NBA's basement dwellers consider themselves legit contenders? 

We've had to remind ourselves that despite these bumps in the road, the Celtics still sit in the No. 2 seed in a talented Eastern Conference. We've had to remind ourselves that the defense is catching up to the offense, and the Celtics have become one of the most efficient teams in the league.

The doubt was at its highest when Boston got absolutely trounced by the Washington Wizards on Tuesday night, one of the most disheartening efforts by the team all season. It was an absolute no-show by Boston at a time when they could ill afford one. The Celtics had a chance to fight for the 1-seed, which they relinquished to the Bucks just ahead of the break, and blew it with Tuesday night's loss.

Then, Boston responded in a massive way on Thursday night. They went into Milwaukee and demolished the top-seeded Bucks, 140-99, reminding everyone in the NBA that they are, indeed, still very good and still very much a threat to win the whole damn thing.

The Celtics rolled into Milwaukee with everyone healthy. The Bucks had everyone healthy, though it should be noted that Thursday night was the second leg of a back-to-back.

But what the Celtics did to the Bucks on Thursday was an absolute massacre. The game was close in the first quarter, before the C's jumped out to an eight-point lead by the end of the frame. Then they dropped 41 points in the second quarter, and the blowout was on. Boston led 75-47 at the half, and it only got more laughable from there. The Celtics led by as many as 49 and had the Bucks waving the white flag late in the third quarter.

It's a nice reminder of what the Celtics can be when they're completely engaged. They sent a message to the Bucks and the rest of the NBA that they should not be taking this team lightly when the playoffs arrive.

The offensive numbers from Thursday night are impressive. Jayson Tatum scored 40 points off 12-for-18 shooting. His 3-point stroke was back and back big for the first time since the break, with Tatum draining eight of his 10 attempts from deep.

Jaylen Brown continued his torrid stretch with 30 points off 13-for-20 shooting. He scored 20 in the first half, 17 of which came in the first quarter alone to set the tone for Boston.

It's the second time this season that Tatum and Brown have combined for 70 points against the Bucks. The Celtics, of course, won both of those games.

Al Horford and Malcolm Brogdon both scored 14. Brogdon was an absurd plus-41 in his 27 minutes of action.

All of that offense came from Boston's defensive intensity, which was cranked up to 11 (potentially even 12) in Miilwaukee. The Celtics made the Bucks work for everything, and they constructed a wall around Giannis Antetokounmpo whenever he touched the ball. Anytime Giannis tried to get going, he was met by a combo of Al Horford, Brown and Marcus Smart/Derrick White. Three defenders were nearby whenever he tried to engage, and it didn't work out very well for the superstar.

Antetokounmpo was a mere 11-for-27 from the field and finished with just 24 fairly meaningless points. Khris Middleton was Milwaukee's second-leading scorer with 13 before he left in the third after taking a Brown elbow to the face. Jrue Holliday, who dropped 51 on the Pacers on Wednesday, had just six points off 2-for-8 shooting.

The Boston defense was masterful throughout Thursday's win. Everyone was engaged and no one was giving any ground. Robert Williams played just 19 minutes, but he made a giant impact with his infectious energy. He's as close to full Time Lord mode as we've seen in a while, ripping down seven rebounds and rejecting four shots. He changed a handful of others at the rim and away from the basket as well.

The Bucks never got into a groove and shot just 37.6 percent overall. They hit just 14 of their 43 bids from downtown. The Celtics, on the other hand, hit 56 percent of their shots and 51.2 percent (22-for-43) from beyond the arc.

It was the beatdown we needed to see from the Celtics against the best team in the NBA. It makes Tuesday night's loss to the Wizards all the more frustrating: The Celtics could be just 1.5 back from Milwaukee for the 1-seed had they just shown up in the nation's capital, which would have made the final week of the regular season very interesting.

But at least they responded when they needed to. Thursday night's win should all but lock the C's into the 2-seed, with a 2.5 game lead over the 76ers with five games left, including one against Philly. The Celtics already own the tiebreaker, having gone 3-0 against the 76ers thus far this season.

Add Thursday night's win to the mix, and Boston is 5-1 against Milwaukee and Philadelphia this season. That one loss came on Valentine's Day in Milwaukee with half the team sitting out. 

While recent losses against the likes of the Rockets and the Jazz have been frustrating, that 5-1 record is a good reminder that the Celtics can take care of business against the best teams in the league. The focus now over the last week of the regular season is to remain on course.

That means, no letdown when the Jazz visit TD Garden on Friday night. The Celtics blew a late lead to the Jazz in Utah two weeks ago, and seem determined not to let it happen again.

"Just being consistent overall has been the key, and tomorrow is an obvious game where we could take our foot off the gas," Brown said Thursday night. "It'd be a good sign for us to come out and take care of business tomorrow. Have the right mentality, have the right mindset on a back-to-back, and that could be a great indication for us.

"We may have lost some games, but we haven't let a bad game turn into a bad two weeks or bad month," Brown added. "All we have to do is continue to play basketball, take care of the details, hone in, and try to reach our full potential. It's never too late for stuff like that."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.