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Zeller Scores 26, Celtics Beat Bucks 124-109

BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics, continuing their quest to finish third in the Eastern Conference, set up a Saturday night showdown with the Hawks in Atlanta by hammering the Milwaukee Bucks 124-109 on Friday night.

The win, their fourth straight and eighth in the last 10 games, moved the Celtics, who got a career high-matching 26 points off the bench from Tyler Zeller, into a tie with the Hawks for third place in the conference. The Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets are both a game behind -- and the Celtics (47-32) host Charlotte on Monday and Miami on Wednesday.

Finishing third or fourth in the conference would give the Celtics the home-court advantage in the playoffs. How important is that? The Celtics have won 18 of their last 20 at TD Garden.

Boston trailed by 11 in the first quarter but had romped all the way to a 21-point lead at the end of the third.

Zeller led the Celtics, while Isaiah Thomas scored 20 and was allowed to rest in the fourth quarter (he played just under 25 minutes). Zeller's offensive explosion ended Thomas' streak of leading the team in scoring at a club-record 17 straight games.

The Celtics dished out 35 assists on 44 baskets and also got 16 points apiece from Kelly Olynyk and Avery Bradley and 15 from Jared Sullinger. Marcus Smart and Evan Turner dished out nine assists apiece off the bench.

Zeller, who also scored 26 points on March 26, 2015, missed his last two shots, finishing 9-of-15 from the floor.

Giannis Antetokounmpo continued his recent torrid offense by scoring 17 of his 27 points in the first quarter but fell victim to second-half foul trouble but still led all scorers. Jabari Parker scored 18 points, Miles Plumlee had 16 and Tyler Ennis had nine assists.

The Bucks, playing without injured leading scorer Khris Middleton, rode Antetokounmpo to their 11-point lead. Antetokounmpo had 17 points, four rebounds and three assists by the end of the quarter but the Celtics had trimmed the lead to five and then took advantage of his rest in the second quarter.

The home team rallied, took the lead at 40-39 and had it up to eight with 1:02 left in the half. The lead was five and the Celtics had to go full-court in the final 2.5 seconds -- but Smart, a true sparkplug in the second quarter after getting four stitches for a cut at the end of the previous game, hit Sullinger with a home-run pass, Sullinger laying the ball in with a half-second left to give Smart his seventh assist in 16 minutes of first-half play.

NOTES: F Khris Middleton, Milwaukee's leading scorer, missed his third straight game with a thigh injury but is on the trip and hopes to play before next Wednesday night's season finale. ... Celtics G/F Evan Turner returned wearing goggles after missing a game with an eye abrasion. ... Bucks coach Jason Kidd, a two-time Olympian, believes NBA players should play in the Olympics. "Why wouldn't they want to represent their country?" he said before Friday night's game. "I think that's one of the best times of your career to be able to put on red, white and blue for the United States, to be able to play with the best players in the world. You should represent your country if you have that opportunity." ... The Celtics are pushing Jae Crowder for the NBA's Most Improved Player Award, although it's going to be tough to beat Portland's C.J. McCollum. ... A reporter from Sweden's Pro Hockey Magazine was on hand to chat with Celtics Swedish import Jonas Jerebko.

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