In race for No. 1 seed, Celtics beat Bucks by 41

MILWAUKEE — The Boston Celtics responded to one of their worst losses of the season with one of their biggest wins.

The Celtics cruised to a 140-99 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night, bouncing back from a disappointing loss in their previous game against the Washington Wizards and pushing the race for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference into the final week of the season.

Boston now trails Milwaukee by two games in the standings for the top seed in the conference and best record in the NBA, but the Celtics won the season series and own the tiebreaker. Both teams have five games remaining in the regular season, and the Celtics still have hopes of catching the Bucks for the No. 1 seed down the stretch.

“We want to finish out the season strong, see what happens,” Celtics guard Jaylen Brown said.

Meanwhile, the 41-point loss for the Bucks is their second-largest home defeat in franchise history. Milwaukee’s starters combined to score 54 points, their fourth-lowest total in a game this season, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.

“We know what the deal is. It’s not hard to understand. If you’re not focused, if you don’t play hard, they’re going to kick our ass,” said Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who scored a team-high 24 points. “Simple as that. There’s no level of concern. It’s a fact. Now you have this in your head and it’s up to us to see how we’re going to deal with it. Are we going to go and play the same way? If we play the same way, we’ll have the same outcome.

“We got to change some stuff. We got to compete. We got to have some pride.”

Milwaukee’s starters struggled to get anything going, but Boston was carried by a pair of hot shooting performances from its stars on Thursday.

Jayson Tatum scored 40 points on 12-of-18 shooting, which included knocking down eight of his 10 3-pointers, and Brown added 30 points on 13-of-20 shooting.

“It’s unbelievable, just so much fun watching them,” Celtics forward Al Horford said. “They just had a different look in their eyes, they both did. Making the right play every time, this was a special one for them.”

After falling to the short-handed Wizards earlier this week, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said the team played with much more attention to detail on Thursday.

Combine that effort with some much-improved shotmaking — Boston shot 56% from the field (51.2% on 3-pointers) — and the Celtics controlled the game from the opening tip, leading by as many as 49 points.

“We’ve been pretty consistent all year long for the most part,” Brown said. “We probably should be closer to 60 wins at this point, but we’re a better team than we were last year. We’ve won more games than we did last year. And overall, we haven’t dropped the ball, we might have lost some games, but we haven’t let a bad game turn into a bad two weeks or a bad month. We’ve been able to bounce back.”

The Celtics won the season series over the Bucks 2-1, including blowout victories on Thursday night and on Christmas Day in Boston. In Milwaukee’s lone victory, on Feb. 14, the Celtics were missing Tatum.

However, despite some convincing victories over their conference rivals, the Celtics weren’t ready to put too much stock into Thursday’s result as a predictor for the postseason.

The Bucks were playing on the second night of a back-to-back after a victory Wednesday night against Indiana, which Horford pointed out as the schedule working in Boston’s favor.

“We got a lot of history with them,” Tatum said. “Very familiar with them. Tonight, we shot the ball well, they didn’t shoot it well. If we play them again in the postseason, it’s probably not going to be like this. They feel like they probably could have played a lot better. They missed a lot of open shots, so there’s some things we probably got to clean up. But down the line if we see them again, it’s going to be a tough matchup.”

And the Celtics are looking to find some consistency heading into the postseason. So, despite a big victory on Thursday, they know they must follow up their performance when they host the Utah Jazz in Boston on Friday to start building momentum for the postseason.

“We’re going to show how good of a team we are by the way we respond [Friday],” Tatum said. “That’s all that matters at this point.”

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