MILWAUKEE — When the Celtics were throttled by the struggling and shorthanded Wizards Tuesday night, their level of concern afterward was quite low. They insisted that it was just one sleepy night over a long season, and that it would not linger.
But they weren’t totally in control of that possibility Thursday night, when they played a road game against the Bucks, the top team in the NBA. Then it began, and it became clear that their fresh start had arrived.
Behind Jayson Tatum (40 points) and Jaylen Brown (30 points), the Celtics obliterated the full-strength Bucks from all sides, leading by as many as 49 points before finishing off a 140-99 win in which they once again resembled title contenders.
Brown took control by erupting for 17 of his 30 points in the first quarter, and Tatum dominated the next two by pouring in 33 of his 40. Both players were able to watch the fourth quarter from the bench, because their services were no longer needed.
Despite the win, the Celtics remain two games behind the first-place Bucks with just five remaining. But this win did secure the tiebreaker for Boston. And, if nothing else, it provided some evidence that having to win a road playoff game or two here would not necessarily be daunting.
Observations from the game:
⋅ Brown, Tatum and Al Horford helped the Celtics to a perfect start from beyond the arc in the opening minutes, a stark contrast from last game, when Boston was just 11 for 44 from long range. The confidence boosts from hot shooting seem particularly obvious with this team, and it truly swelled over the rest of the first half. Horford, who primarily does his work on catch-and-shoot attempts from the corners, pulled up for some deep ones above the break. Tatum hit tough side-step and step-back attempts. Brown, Tatum and Horford combined to go 11 for 15 from beyond the arc in the first half. No one is beating this team when that happens.
⋅ Brown started it all for the Celtics while the others were just getting warmed up. He erupted for 17 points on 7 of 9 shooting in the first quarter, mixing long-range darts in with smooth drives that led to tough but successful mid-range fadeaways. Brown is not going to be playing without that protective mask anytime soon.
⋅ The 3-point shooting was excellent, but that will come and go. But the Bucks should be more disturbed by the action in the paint. Celtics such as Brown, Tatum and Malcolm Brogdon had little trouble blitzing past Milwaukee’s slower defenders such as Grayson Allen, Joe Ingles and Jae Crowder. The Celtics would look to exploit these opportunities often in a playoff series.
⋅ Horford and Robert Williams have yet to play in games on back-to-back nights this season, as the Celtics prioritize their health. But both were active for Thursday’s game. Perhaps it was because the Celtics wanted a look at their full squad against Milwaukee’s. Maybe they believe they can beat the Jazz without both players. Or maybe, with the No. 1 seed still within reach, they’re going to veer from the plan. It’d be stunning if Horford played against the Jazz, but Robert Williams might have a shot.
⋅ Robert Williams looked great in the first half Thursday. The Celtics didn’t have an offensive rebound in the first quarter — partly because they didn’t miss many shots — but in the second Williams gobbled up four of them, demoralizing a Milwaukee defense that was already having enough trouble keeping up with the Celtics’ attack.
⋅ The Celtics have had some issues holding onto big leads since the All-Star break, with the 28-point collapse against the Nets the most glaring example. But it became clear there would be no such issues in this game. Boston took a 75-47 halftime lead, and its offense was somehow even more dominant during the third quarter. Tatum made all six of his shots, all four of his 3-pointers and scored 18 points, and Boston shot 76.2 percent as a team.
⋅ Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer waved the white flag with a few minutes left in the third, but Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla left his starters in for the duration, despite a 44-point lead and a game against the Jazz looming Friday.