Three thoughts on Boston’s 139–118 Christmas Day drubbing of Milwaukee …
As Christmas Gifts Go, This Was a Lump of Coal
On paper, this was the most compelling game on the NBA calendar: a 1-2 matchup, a possible (probable?) conference finals preview with a pair of MVP candidates in Jayson Tatum and Giannis Antetokounmpo going head-to-head. But a competitive game in the first half quickly turned into a laugher, with Boston outscoring the Bucks 38–25 in the third quarter and Mike Budenholzer waving the white flag with four minutes to play in the fourth.
Boston flexed its strengths in this one. The NBA’s No. 1 offense connected on 58.8% of its shots. The league’s sixth-best three-point shooting team shot 48.7% from deep. Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who have put up more total points this season than any in the NBA, combined for 70. The defense, at full strength since the return of Robert Williams, limited Antetokounmpo to 27 points on 9-of-22 shooting.
The NBA was undoubtedly hoping for some holiday drama—fun fact, courtesy of Celtics radio voice Sean Grande: The Celtics did not play a home Christmas game until 2017 because late team president Red Auerbach wanted team and arena staff to have the day off—but this one quickly turned one-sided.
Is Jayson Tatum the MVP Leader?
There will be plenty of dissension in Denver, where two-time MVP Nikola Jokic is putting up the kind of numbers (on the kind of team) that will pressure voters into giving him a third trophy. But with a big stage, Tatum put on a show. He scored 41 points. He pulled down seven rebounds. He handed out five assists. He needed just 22 shots to get his points, thanks in part to 10 trips to the free throw line.
Tatum has evolved into a ruthlessly efficient scorer. His shooting percentage (47.1%) is a career best. He leads the NBA in real plus/minus, per ESPN. His per-game plus/minus (7.5) trailed only Jokic among players who play at least 30 minutes per game, per NBA.com. He is tied for the most 40-plus point games by any player this season. In December, he has outdueled Jokic, Kevin Durant and Devin Booker in battles of MVP candidates. After Sunday, he can add Giannis to the list.
The NBA season has a long way to go but if the Celtics keep rolling, Tatum will be tough to beat.
Will Khris Middleton Solve the Bucks’ Problems?
We still can’t really project a Bucks-Celtics playoff clash because the injury-riddled Middleton hasn’t factored in this matchup for a long time. After missing all of last season’s conference semifinals with a knee injury, Middleton was in street clothes again on Sunday, still healing from another lower leg injury.
Milwaukee’s offense has sputtered without Middleton, tumbling from third in efficiency last season to 17th in this one. Budenholzer has preached patience with Middleton, but the facts are that Middleton, an NBA ironman in recent years, has missed more games this season (26) than he has since the 2016-17 season and his injuries (knee, wrist, ankle) are seemingly everywhere. The Bucks don’t need to rush Middleton but if they were reminded of anything on Christmas, it’s that to beat Boston, they are going to need him.