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Celtics smash defending champion Bucks 109-81 in Game 7, reach Eastern Conference Finals

BOSTON — Over seven games, 15 nights and 336 minutes, the Bucks tried to frame their second-round series with the Celtics as a bet.

That they could successfully isolate Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown against Giannis Antetokounmpo, the greatest player in the world, and Jrue Holiday in a tilted contest of stars.

That Boston’s role players couldn’t rescue Tatum and Brown, even when left alone to make 3s from the corner. That Grant Williams and Derrick White would, in fact, shoot enough 3s to hurt their own team instead of Milwaukee and hand over the series.

They wagered wrong.

The Celtics sent the betting Bucks packing with a 109-81 blowout in Game 7 before an explosive afternoon crowd at TD Garden. Williams trumped Tatum’s 23 points with a game-high 27, six rebounds and two blocks. He drilled seven 3-pointers and broke the NBA record for most 3-point attempts in a Game 7 with 18.

“I told (Williams), ‘let it fly,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka shared post-game. “They were disrespecting you more tonight than earlier in the series.”

Brown scored 19 points and grabbed eight rebounds, while Marcus Smart pocketed 11 points, 10 assists and seven boards.

Boston will now meet the Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Tuesday in Miami at 8:30 p.m.

The Celtics led for the entirety of Sunday’s second half, thanks to a defiant and defining third-quarter stretch.

After Tatum picked up his fourth foul with a 10-point lead and 7:44 left in the quarter, Boston deployed a lineup it had used in just eight regular-season games and 26 postseason minutes. White came off the bench for Tatum to join Williams, Brown, Smart and Al Horford, veterans in arms against the defending champions. What should have been Milwaukee’s runway to a tied game became a trap door to elimination.

Together, the White-Williams-Brown-Horford-Smart lineup, out-scored by 6.9 points per 100 possessions in the regular-season, grew their lead to 15 heading into the fourth quarter. Boston’s humming slash-and-kick offense became gash-and-can every 3 in sight, with Williams and White hitting from downtown around successful rim attacks by Horford and Brown.

The Celtics netted 31 points in the third quarter, far more than they had scored in the first or the second. Antetokounmpo (25 points, 20 rebounds) scored just four points around several misses and two turnovers, the second a traveling violation that spurred the entire crowd to stand, scream and signal for a walk.

Once Tatum returned with a 79-64 edge to start the fourth, he scored or assisted on 12 of the Celtics’ next 15 points. Boston stretched its lead past 20 within minutes. It was a Garden party long before the final buzzer sounded, the steeled Celtics burying the wagering Bucks from 3-point range.

Boston took 55 of its 88 shots from distance, cashed 40% of them and made 42% overall. The Bucks bricked their way to a 36.7 field goal percentage dragged down by a 12.1% showing on 3-pointers. Defensively, the Celtics limited Milwaukee to 17 points in both the second and fourth quarters.

The second half shootout was a significant departure from a tense first half that yielded a 48-43 Celtics lead.

Antetokounmpo controlled the first quarter almost single-handedly, coming two rebounds and four assists shy of a triple-double. Between his scoring and playmaking, he accounted for every Bucks point before taking a brief breather in the final minute. Milwaukee led for the final 10:23 of the quarter.

With Antetokounmpo on the bench, the Celtics closed on a 6-2 run, despite woeful shooting around Tatum and Brown. Boston trailed 26-20 entering the second quarter and soon unleashed their frustrations at the rim.

Attacking the paint with a renewed ferocity, they sent Bobby Portis to the bench with his third foul and picked up a pair on Holiday and Wesley Matthews. Brown tied the game at 30-all by finishing through contact, then Payton Pritchard hit Horford underneath with a pocket pass he converted into a dunk. The Celtics lost all momentum during an ensuing 7-2 Bucks run, then leapt back into the fire with back-to-back 3s from Tatum and Williams.

Around two scoreless minutes, Antetokounmpo and Holiday forged a 40-40 tie.

Over the last three minutes of the half, Boston wrestled its way to more points: a Tatum reverse layup, a Smart put-back dunk and Smart foul shot. Milwaukee punch back, drawing an offensive foul on Tatum with seconds left, his third. After an unsuccessful challenge, Smart picked Antetokounmpo’s pocket and drew a shooting foul in his scramble for the ball, reminiscent of the foul he’d drawn to close Game 3.

Smart canned all three foul shots, giving the Celtics some breathing room entering halftime, when they first began to run away with the series.