The Boston Celtics have heard the same criticisms over and over this season: Their starters are too old. They can’t put up big scores. They can’t rebound.
Wednesday night at the TD Garden, at least for a night, they silenced their critics.
Every Celtic starter scored in double digits, and the Celtics grabbed a season-high 18 offensive rebounds, beating the Milwaukee Bucks, 102-96. The Celtics scored 100+ points for just the third time in February. They’re now 8-1 historically on Feb. 29, having not lost on Leap Day since 1984.
Dominant Third Carries Celtics
The Celtics came out of halftime down 54-50. The deficit could easily have been worse, but Rajon Rondo hit a layup with eight seconds left in the second quarter and, following a lost ball by Bucks small forward Carlos Delfino, found Keyon Dooling behind the arch for three more points with 0.8 seconds left.
The Bucks maintained their lead through the first three minutes of the third, with point guard Shaun Livingston hitting a jumper to go up 60-55.
The Celtics, led primarily by their starting five, responded with a 22-7 run for the remaining 8+ minutes of the third. Kevin Garnett began the run with two baskets inside the paint to cut the Bucks’ lead to one, and Brandon Bass – who struggled badly in the first half but scored nine of 16 total points in the third – hit a 15-footer to give the Celtics their first lead since the first quarter.
Strong Celtics defense held the Bucks scoreless for nearly four minutes following Livingston’s basket, and the Celtics’ offense missed just two shots during that stretch (one of which led to an offensive rebound). They built their lead to 71-64 on baskets by Rondo (who posted his third triple-double of the season with 15 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists), Ray Allen (15 points, including 29-foot three-point bank-shot with the shot-clock expiring), Paul Pierce (10 points) and Chris Wilcox.
The Celtics took a 77-67 lead into the fourth, building their lead as high 15 points at times. Their best play was a give-and-go between Dooling and Garnett that ended in a Dooling dunk and an 84-71 lead.
The Bucks used a 13-0 run – highlighted by point guard Brandon Jennings‘ only two baskets of the game, both threes – to cut Boston’s lead to 98-96 with under 20 seconds left in the game, but Garnett hit four free throws to put the game away. Garnett finished with a season-high 25 points on 50 percent shooting and 10 rebounds, plus two steals and two blocks. He’s averaged 22 points and 10.3 rebounds over his last three games.
Wilcox, Bass Strong in the Paint
Though the Bucks’ bench outscored the Celtics’ 30-21 Wednesday, Wilcox submitted the best individual effort among either team’s reserves. In 26 minutes Wilcox scored seven and grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds. Six of his rebounds came on the offensive end, and the Celtics turned those rebounds into eight second-chance points.
A Wilcox offensive board midway through the first led to a slashing layup from Rondo that pushed Boston’s lead to 14-11. It came two possessions after Rondo grabbed an offensive board of his own, dribbled away from the basket and then suddenly cut back toward it for another layup.
A fourth-quarter offensive rebound led to a layup for Dooling, and on the Celtics’ next possession Wilcox grabbed his own rebound and scored it for an 86-71 lead.
Bass, who started Wednesday over the injured Jermaine O’Neal, added four offensive boards of his own, helping the Celtics maintain their dominance in the paint. When Wilcox missed a dunk midway through the third, Bass grabbed the board, eventually working the ball to Pierce and then to Wilcox for a successful dunk and a 65-60 lead.
Bucks Unafraid of Mid-Range Jumpers
Though the Bucks grabbed 16 offensive rebounds of their own, only losing the rebounding battle by three and the points-in-paint battle by two, they used solid mid-range shooting to overcome an early deficit and then maintain a five- to 10-point lead through the second. Power forwards Ersan Ilyasova and Drew Gooden combined for 48 points on nearly 53 percent shooting. They also went 12-for-13 at the free throw line, but the Celtics still took 12 more free throws overall.
The Bucks took eight more shots Wednesday night, but they connected just over 40 percent of the time. The Celtics shot with 46 percent accuracy.