C's Start Strong, Finish Stronger: After managing just 12 points in the first quarter in their victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Monday, the Celtics exploded out of the gate against the Bucks, posting 35 first frame points on 15-of-26 shooting (57.7 percent). The Celtics converted their first five field goal attempts, limited their turnovers (just one in the entire quarter), and were happy to keep pace with the up-tempo Bucks, as they scored on a number of transition opportunities. The Bucks managed 29 points of their own in the opening quarter, as defense wasn't at a premium for either club in the first half. The game stayed tight through the end of the third quarter, until the Celtics stormed ahead early in the final period, courtesy of a 16-6 run over the first six minutes of the fourth frame, which propelled Boston to a 90-77 advantage.
More importantly, the defensive intensity picked up in the second half, particularly in the final quarter. The Celtics held the Bucks to just 6-of-20 shooting in the fourth (30 percent), and forced five turnovers, which they converted into 10 points of their own. It was encouraging to see the Celtics not fall off the rails in the second half following what was a very frantic and fast-paced opening 24 minutes. Rather than allowing the Bucks to run past them in the second half -- as they allowed the Sacramento Kings to do in an unsightly loss last week -- the C's hunkered down defensively, slowed the pace, and ground out a quality win.
Pierce Paces C's: Paul Pierce guided Boston's explosive offensive effort, as he accounted for a quarter of the Celtics' total points. Pierce finished with 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting, including 3-of-3 from 3, to go along with nine rebounds, two assists, a steal and two blocks. The captain displayed the full brunt of his offensive game in the opening period, as his first bucket came on a cut to the basket off of a feed from Kevin Garnett on the right side, and he followed that up with a 3-pointer from the left wing, and then another jump shot off of a screen on the right side. Pierce tallied 11 points in the first quarter (helping to jump-start Boston's offense), 10 in the third, and four in the final frame, with all of them coming during Boston's 16-6 game-changing run. Pierce vaulted past Clyde Drexler on the NBA's all-time scoring list, moving into 26th place.
Three other Celtics came through with double-doubles on Thursday, as Garnett contributed 16 points and 10 rebounds (and six assists), Brandon Bass put in 12 points to go along with 10 rebounds, overcoming a scary right ankle roll in the second quarter, and Rajon Rondo tallied 10 points to go along with a game-high 14 assists.
Bench Pressing: With the second night of a difficult back-to-back looming Friday night in Philadelphia against the 76ers, it was crucial for Boston's bench to contribute against the Bucks and take some of the onus off of the starters. The bench brigade fulfilled their mission, as the reserves tallied 31 total points, paced by Mickael Pietrus, who put in 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting (3-of-6 from beyond the arc). Greg Stiemsma filled up the stat sheet in what amounted to a high-quality homecoming, as he finished with six points, four rebounds, three assists, four steals and a game-high five blocks. Stiemsma played much of the fourth quarter with five fouls, but his ability to remain aggressive without picking up his final infraction was a key part of preventing the Bucks from scoring easy baskets in the paint to fuel a comeback. Keyon Dooling was a nice spark off the bench, finishing the game a perfect 4-of-4 from the field for eight points. Avery Bradley brought his signature defense, smothering Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings at times.
Playoff Positioning: The Celtics helped their playoff status in two ways with their win over Milwaukee, as they put even more distance between themselves and the Bucks, who entered Thursday's game just three games behind the Celtics in the loss column. The victory provides the C's with some extra cushioning against the Bucks, who had won six consecutive games prior to Thursday's loss. Meanwhile, the Celtics moved to within a half-game of the idle Philadelphia 76ers for the Atlantic Division lead, which places a significant emphasis on Friday's showdown in the City of Brotherly Love.
Surely the Celtics' last trip to Philadelphia is still fresh in the minds of Celtics fans, as they suffered through a 103-71 debacle back on March 7. The obvious comparison between that game and Friday night's? It's the second night of a back-to-back for Boston, although it's worth mentioning that the C's were coming off of back-to-back overtime victories when they got blown out in Philly the last time around. Brandon Bass played the most out of any Celtics starter on Thursday (37 minutes), but otherwise, C's coach Doc Rivers was able to keep everyone else's minutes relatively in check. The C's will certainly need their legs on Friday against the athletic 76ers, but they will have some extra motivation to avenge their earlier loss, climb back into the playoff picture (winning the Atlantic Division would guarantee the Celtics a top-four seed in the East) and finish what has surely been a grueling 8-game road trip on a positive note.