At opening tip Friday night, TD Garden in Boston was rocking. The beloved Celtics were back in town, ready to avenge Tuesday’s blowout loss to Miami and stomp Milwaukee at home.
Those cheers quickly turned to boos and then dead silence as Garden emptied when a Brandon Jennings runner put the Bucks up 22 points with just under four minutes left in the game.
With all the cards stacked against them, the Bucks put forth one of their best efforts in recent memory in their first game of the season. They were the aggressors. They set the tone. And when the veteran Celtics came charging back, once in the third quarter and again in the fourth, the Bucks showed poise and answered right back, never losing control.
The final score read 99-88, but the game wasn’t nearly that close. Milwaukee went into one of the toughest buildings in the NBA and stomped a team considered to be one of the best in the Eastern Conference.
Milwaukee has opened on the road in every season in the 2000s. Before Friday, it had won only three season openers. Now for the first time since 2006, the Bucks are 1-0.
“One of things you have to do is you have to compete. That’s Job 1,” Bucks coach Scott Skiles said. “Especially against a team like that, that has a lot of pride. They lost their first game. I thought right from the opening jump ball we were just highly competitive; we had a lot of energy.”
It was Jennings who set that tone. From the start, he was aggressive but under control on both ends of the floor. He looked like a man on a mission, maybe with added focus because he didn’t get a contract extension this week.
Finishing with 21 points, 13 assists and six steals, Jennings became the first Bucks player with more than 20 points, more than 10 assists and six steals since Sam Cassell in 2001. Much had been made about the struggles Jennings had against Celtics guard Rajon Rondo in his career, but Round 1 in 2012-13 went to Jennings. Rondo finished with 14 points and 11 assists but was frustrated all night and couldn’t keep Jennings out of the paint.
“I feel like I came out aggressive tonight and I feel like if I do that every night I feel like I give my team a chance to win,” Jennings said. “It was unbelievable. Everybody came to play, and we were just gelling out there.”
The Bucks controlled the inside on both ends, outscoring the Celtics, 52-36, in the paint and outrebounding Boston, 46-36. The Bucks’ length altered shots, forcing Boston to struggle shooting the ball in the first half as Milwaukee built a 16-point halftime lead.
That lead grew to 22 in the third quarter, but the Garden crowd found some life, trying to will a comeback. The Bucks knew it was going to happen, and maybe many Bucks teams in the past would have let the comeback happen. But when the Celtics cut Milwaukee’s lead to 13 with just over five minutes to play, Milwaukee responded with a 9-0 run that sent fans scrambling to the exits.
“When they started to make a little run we stayed aggressive, we kept driving the ball,” Skiles said. “We just didn’t settle for long jump shots. We kept driving, kept cutting, kept moving and we found the open men and were able to get a couple easy baskets when we needed a hoop.”
Friday also marked a breakout game for forward Tobias Harris. Making just his 10th NBA start, Harris looked like a totally different player than he was as a rookie. A matchup nightmare on the defensive end, Harris played small forward when the Celtics went big and slid inside to power forward when Boston went small.
Harris scored 18 points on 8 of 11 shooting, made both of his three-pointers and added six rebounds. Though that alone would have opened some eyes, Harris took Celtics forward Paul Pierce out of his game. The Bucks were concerned about Harris’ defense, but he held Pierce to just 11 points on 3 of 11 shooting.
“The coaches have been on me,” Harris said of his matchup with Pierce. “They’ve wanted me to think about Paul Pierce before I go to bed; they want me to think about him all day. That’s what I did. I scouted him and tried to limit his touches. We knew he was going to score, just make it tough for him.”
As big as Friday’s win was, Skiles knows that a loss in Saturday’s home opener to Cleveland — a team that lost by 29 to Chicago on Friday — would diminish what the Bucks were able to do in Boston.
“From a coaching standpoint you also know you have another one tomorrow in our home opener,” Skiles said. “We need to win tomorrow so that makes this a really big win. You go and don’t take care of business at home then this becomes just another win.”