Celtics got the message, then went out and made a statement in Game 2 win over Bucks

The Celtics were in need of a statement game. All the feel-good momentum from their sweep of the No No (Nan) Nets went away with Sunday’s Game 1 Garden smackdown at the hands of the defending world champion Milwaukee Bucks.

The national narrative seemed to be turning away from Boston as a dangerous team, bound for the NBA Finals. Marcus Smart was hurt, and pundits were calling out Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, both of whom underperformed in the series opener.

With this negativity in their heads and Smart (bruised thigh) on the shelf, the Celtics responded with one of their better games of the season, bolting to a 65-40 halftime lead, and playing smash-mouth defense in a 109-86, wire-to-wire Game 2 victory over the Bucks at the Garden. Brown (seven turnovers and 4-for-13 shooting in Game 1) scored 30, 6 of 10 from international waters.

The 1-1 series resumes Saturday afternoon in Milwaukee.

“We got punched in the mouth last game,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka. “The big message was, ‘let’s show ’em who we are and why we’re here.’ ”

Well played.

Jayson Tatum and the Celtics had the TD Garden crowd on its feet all night Tuesday as they evened the series at one.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Our fair city was in need of a hakuna matata moment in this first week of May. The Patriots had a dubious weekend draft, the Bruins got smoked in their first playoff game, the Red Sox are a train wreck, and suddenly there’s doubt about the team that seemed closest to a Duck Boat ride.

The prospect of the Celts losing two at home felt real and you don’t often see a team lose two at home, then go on to win a seven-game series. The 2017 Isaiah Thomas Celts turned the trick in the first round against the Bulls, but beating these Bucks four out of five seemed too tall an order.

No problem. Boston dialed up its defense (Giannis Antetokounmpo made only one of his first 10 shots and finished with 28 points on 11-for-27 shooting) and bolted out of the blocks with a sizzling first half led by Brown’s 25 points.

The big news, pregame, was that Smart wouldn’t play because of a bruised thigh. It was a bit of a stunner, given the importance of the game and Smart’s toughness. Smart suffered a “stinger” to his right shoulder and the thigh contusion in Sunday’s loss, but cynics (like me) had a hard time believing a thigh bruise would put him on the bench.

If it makes you feel any better, Larry Bird Himself missed a playoff game with the flu in 1983, and another with elbow bursitis in 1985 (Boston lost both of those games).

Larry’s former teammate Cedric Maxwell knows a little bit about this. In his final playoff spring with the Green, Max could not contribute because of a knee injury and didn’t play Game 6 of the ’85 Finals loss to the Lakers. Now a radio color man with the Celtics, Max missed Game 1 of this series because of a bout with COVID, but was back at his station (“they gave me some of those Kamala Harris drugs” — Max) for Game 2.

Derrick White got the start in place of Smart, took the first shot of the game and had it blocked. It was about the only thing that didn’t go right for the Celtics on this night.

Giannis Antetokounmpo missed his first six shots Tuesday night.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Without the Defensive Player of the Year, Boston came out in lockdown mode, forcing the Bucks to miss 10 of their first 11 shots. Antetokounmpo went 0 for 6 out of the gate and didn’t score until the final minute of quarter, which ended with the Celtics leading, 32-21. The Celtics have held him to 38.5 percent (20 for 52) in the series.

White-hot Brown had 17 in the quarter.

It was an important start after the way the Bucks dominated on the parquet in Game 1. The hot-take drumbeat switched from pro-Boston to pro-Bucks after that game with ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith joining the Greek Freak’s Chorus.

Stephen A. was among those who said Brown and Tatum (29 points) had to step up in Game 2 and Brown played like a man who got the message. The veteran from California made seven of his first eight shots (all four of his threes) and his tree made it 42-25 with 6:58 left in the first, forcing a Milwaukee timeout.

With 4:38 left in the first half, a pair of free throws by Tatum pushed the lead to 20:49-29. Giannis was still stuck on 2 points on 1-for-10 shooting. It was 65-40 at intermission and the Celts pushed the lead to 26 early in the third. Milwaukee never got closer than 12.

“I loved our aggressiveness,” said Udoka. “In Game 1 I didn’t love how we didn’t respond to their being physical. We learned things in Game 1. We hadn’t been outmuscled like that all year. . . But look at who we’ve been in the last few months. We haven’t lost two in a row in a while.”

It feels like three of the NBA’s conference semifinalists are a near certainty. It’s looking like the Warriors and Suns in the West and the Miami Heat very likely to beat the Sixers for a spot in the East.

Celtics-Bucks feels like a tossup. There is no pattern yet.

You might want to plan on Game 7 at the Garden on May 15.


Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at daniel.shaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.

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