Bobby Portis fueled a Milwaukee comeback, but the Celtics made plays when it counted to secure the win

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics

An injury to Giannis Antetokounmpo robbed Wednesday night’s showdown between the two top teams in the Eastern Conference of some of its intrigue on Wednesday night. The Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks met for the third time this season, but the Bucks’ MVP candidate forward missed his second consecutive game and fifth of the season. The Greek Freak’s absence didn’t rob the contest of drama, however, as the Bucks rallied from a 21-point Boston lead in the fourth quarter and brought the game within a single possession in the closing minutes, before clutch play from the Celtics secured the 122-119 win.

Jayson Tatum led the way with 31 points on 9-of-19 shooting, and Derrick White added 23 of his own. Elsewhere, the trio of Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porzingis and Payton Pritchard rounded out the Boston offense for the night with 57 points combined. For the Bucks, Dame Lillard and the recently returned Khris Middleton carried the scoring load with 32 and 22 points, respectively, while Bobby Portis enjoyed a big fourth quarter and tallied 24 points and 15 rebounds in total.

With the Bucks shorthanded, the Celtics raced out to a strong start this evening behind a hot opening frame from Tatum and White. The duo posted the two leading scoring lines of the first quarter, scoring 10 and 11 points apiece, and Boston built a lead as high as 11 points in the opening minutes of the game. The Bucks rallied back, however, relying on Middleton. Playing in his second game since mid-February, the 32 year old forward scored eight first quarter points, and a balanced offensive effort from the Bucks kept the game within range. The Celtics led 33-28 entering the second quarter.

The Celtics deployed a notable twist in their rotation tonight, bringing Xavier Tillman off the bench as part of their first lineup change of the game. Tillman’s minutes have fluctuated since joining the team at the Trade Deadline, as the team has most frequently opted to deploy him in the absence of the Porzingis/Horford starting duo. In the first half tonight, though, coach Joe Mazzulla pivoted to larger lineup looks, running double bigs frequently and even pairing Tillman with Luke Kornet early in the second. Tillman acquitted himself well, answering Milwaukee’s challenges by corralling their ball-handlers defensively off of switches.

The Celtics’ other early bench contributor made his presence known early in the second quarter. Payton Pritchard was at his Energizer Bunny best this evening, juicing the Boston offense with some electric shotmaking from the jump. He scored 13 points in the first half — 10 in the second quarter — and alongside continued brilliance from Tatum, the Celtics began to open a significant lead over Milwaukee. Boston led by as many as 18 points, and after withstanding a late Bucks run, entered the halftime break with a 69-56 lead.

Momentum tilted in Milwaukee’s favor as the third quarter began. The Bucks connected on three consecutive threes in the early minutes in the quarter, once again trimming the Boston lead down to single digits. The Celtics weathered the storm, however, pushing the Bucks back into the double-digit range behind a balanced offensive attack. As the quarter wore on, the Celtics worked their way back into the driver’s seat. The lead reached as high as 21 points, and they entered the final frame with a 18-point edge, 101-83.

In the early minutes of the fourth, Milwaukee once again trimmed into the Boston lead. After Pritchard opened the quarter with his fifth three of the game, the Bucks rattled off a 9-0 run to pull themselves back within 12 points of the Celtics and prompt a Mazzulla timeout. The Bucks extended their run to 11-0 coming out of the timeout, but White finally broke it with a deep three-pointer. As Bucks coach Doc Rivers took a timeout, the Celtics led by 13 with 7:20 remaining.

White answered a Lillard three-pointer with one of his own in the ensuing possessions after play resumed. After that, defense began to take over a game that had otherwise been dominated by scoring. The teams exchanged block shots — one by White, one by Pat Connaughton — and the next nearly two minutes of game time saw just two points scored, on a tip-in by Connaughton. After a failed Boston challenge, Milwaukee’s Bobby Portis went on a personal 5-0 run and Brown missed a pair of free throws, and suddenly, the Celtics were clinging to just a six-point lead with just over three minutes to play.

Portis’ personal run advanced to 8-0 after a Mazzulla timeout, cutting the Celtics’ lead down to three points. He missed a heat check on the ensuing possession, however, and Tatum drew a foul at the rim and made a pair of free throws before converting on a layup to restore the Boston lead to seven — Tatum’s first points of the second half of the game, in fact. Lillard converted on a two and a three, however, and Portis added a bucket to bring the Bucks within two points with just 32.1 seconds remaining in regulation.

Needing a defensive stop, the Bucks put Brown on the line, and this time, he converted on both of his free throws. Rivers took a timeout with 20.1 on the clock, but on the ensuing possession, Lillard couldn’t find paydirt on a layup attempt. The Celtics corralled the rebound and the Bucks were forced to play the foul game, putting Tatum on the free throw line to finally ice the game.

Next up, the Celtics will travel to Detroit for a Friday night matchup with the Pistons at 7 PM EST on NBC Sports Boston.