BOSTON – Jayson Tatum found himself wide open in the paint, took a feed from Marcus Smart and didn’t hesitate to deliver a late Christmas Day stocking stuffer on Giannis Antetekounmpo’s head.
Tatum’s one-handed poster slam on the Bucks star sent TD Garden into delirium, but the Celtics star didn’t react. No flex, no emotion, Tatum put his head down and went straight back to defense.
He’s got bigger goals this season.
In a highly-anticipated Christmas Day showdown against another MVP candidate, Tatum came out on top again. The Celtics star poured in 41 points – which included a monster 20-point third – as the C’s cemented themselves atop the Eastern Conference with a dominant 139-118 victory over the Bucks at TD Garden.
The Celtics’ scorching hot offense returned – at least for one game. Behind a strong start, the C’s shot 45.9% from long range and 56.8% overall as they pulled away from the cold-shooting Bucks, who went just 11-for-33 from deep.
Antetekounmpo was almost entirely made ineffective. Although he scored 27 points, he finished 9-for-22 from the floor and never really got going.
Tatum outperformed him in every sense, especially in the third quarter. After the Bucks made it a one-point game going into halftime, Tatum put the Celtics on his shoulders by erupting in the third period. He went 7-for-10 from the field, which included a stretch of six makes in a row as he helped put Boston ahead by 14 going into the final period.
The Bucks never made it a game again. After they scored the first five points of the fourth, the Celtics responded. Grant Williams hit a 3, Rob Williams flushed an alley-oop, and the Celtics pulled away. When Grant Williams hit a 3 to put the C’s up 19 with 9:23 remaining, he did a shimmy dance reminiscent of Antoine Walker as he backpedaled down the court.
Jaylen Brown scored 29 points, Derrick White added 12 and Al Horford and Grant Williams each scored 11 for the Celtics, who are now 1.5 games ahead of the Bucks.
Other observations from the win:
– Fresh off a much-needed win Friday, the Celtics started Sunday’s showcase strong. And finally, they started hitting their 3-pointers.
The Celtics, who had shot 28.9% from long distance in their previous seven games, started hot from deep as they hunted shots early in the shot clock. They started the game 5-for-6 from beyond the arc, forcing an early Bucks timeout after a Brown triple. Sam Hauser, still in a slump as he entered Sunday shooting 26.8% from deep this month, banked in a 31-footer as time expired in the first quarter as Boston went 8-for-13 from 3 in the opening period.
– Tatum’s epic dunk over Antetekounmpo was the highlight of the night, and it represented how well the Celtics kept the Bucks star in check. Antetekounmpo had just 11 points in the first half, and the Celtics made him work for his points all night as they forced most of his shots into tough, contested jumpers. They threw several bodies on him, including Grant Williams and Blake Griffin – who made his first appearance since last Friday’s loss to the Magic – absorbing several blows from the Bucks star. They even seemed to get him frustrated enough to retaliate on Brown when Antetekounmpo seemed to take issue with some contact, which caused a mini skirmish late in the fourth.
– As good as the Celtics looked in the first half, the Bucks created momentum going into halftime with a strong second quarter. Antetekounmpo’s teammates – mostly Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez – were responsible for making it a one-point game at the break after the Celtics led by as many as 11. Brown was fouled on a long 3-pointer to end the half, but he inexplicably missed all three free throws as the half closed on a sour note.