The Bucks had a chance to send the game to overtime when Antetokounmpo was fouled by Tristan Thompson on an inbounds pass. He made the first foul shot, but missed the second short.
Jaylen Brown led Boston with 33 points; Tatum added 30. Jeff Teague had 19 points and 4 assists.
Antetokounmpo finished with 35 points, 18 coming in a ferocious fourth quarter, as Milwaukee roared back and erased a 17-point deficit. But the Celtics regrouped before it was too late.
Observations from the game:
⋅ The final play was not all that intricate, but it worked. Marcus Smart threw the sideline inbounds pass to Tatum, who was initially defended at the top of the key by Khris Middleton.
Milwaukee hadn’t switched on screens very often in this game, but in this case it was an easy call for Antetokounmpo to slide over to Tatum when Smart set a screen. Middleton hedged toward Tatum, too, briefly leaving Smart open at the top of the key, but it was clear Tatum was going to find a way to get his shot one way or another. Middleton faded back toward Smart, and Tatum lulled Antetokounmpo with a couple between-the-legs dribbles.
Initially, his shot’s trajectory made it look like it would be a bad miss.
“I saw the ball going really high, so I was like, happy about it,” Antetokounmpo said. “But, you know, the basketball gods rewarded them, and he made it.”
It banked high off the backboard and through the net. It was the kind of shot, with Boston down by just 1, that may have drawn some criticism if it had missed. But it didn’t.
“The angle that I had and knowing how tall [Giannis] is, once I let it go I knew it was going to hit the backboard,” Tatum said. “But I didn’t necessarily try. I didn’t try to do that.”
⋅ There was growing angst about this Celtics team based on a pair of lethargic exhibition games, but this should quell that for now. The Celtics were not perfect, but the performances of their two stars, as well as newcomers Teague and Tristan Thompson, showed Boston should be able to stay afloat while Kemba Walker is out.
“Just knowing that, all right, it’s time now,” Tatum said. “Obviously you want to translate what you’re doing in practice to preseason, but I’ve been in the league a little while now to understand it doesn’t always happen that way. But [we know] that we’ve got a job to do and we know what we need to look like when the games count.”
⋅ The Bucks were called for a defensive 3-second technical foul with just under five minutes left in the second quarter and Brown stepped to the line. There were no true sharpshooters on the floor with him, but it was still a bit of a surprising choice for a career 67.8-percent shooter who had struggled mightily up to that point in the game.
Brown drained the shot, and that may have ignited him. He scored 10 points over the final 2:32 of the half and was in control after that, including a substantial look as a pick-and-roll ballhandler.
“New year, new season, new responsibilities,” Brown said.
This Boston offense will face challenges while Walker is out, and the Celtics will need big bursts from Brown most nights.
⋅ Thompson, who missed both preseason games due to a hamstring injury, had 12 points and 8 rebounds in 22 minutes. It was slightly surprising that he joined Daniel Theis in a double-big starting lineup. The experiment did not work all that well in the opening quarter, as the Bucks exploded for one transition opportunity after another.
“It was a function of, I was really upset with how we played up to this point and I wanted to start a very, very good defensive lineup,” coach Brad Stevens said. “And we have to play a lot better at that end still.”
⋅ Payton Pritchard, the 26th pick of last month’s draft, checked in late in the first quarter, and played 13 total minutes, providing further evidence that he is ahead of 14th pick Aaron Nesmith, who did not play.
⋅ Teague continued his excellent play. He drilled all four of his 3-pointers and is 9 for 9 from long range including the preseason. He also had a key strip of Bucks guard Donte DiVincenzo on a fast-break with Milwaukee leading by a point in the final minute. Teague brought a steadiness to Boston’s offense, and his poise will be a huge asset with Walker out. His scorching 3-point shooting was pointed out to him by a reporter after the game.
“Thanks for jinxing me,” he quipped.
⋅ Smart is a two-time first-team All-Defense selection, and if Antetokounmpo forgot, he received a quick reminder. Smart drew three offensive fouls on Antetokounmpo, and followed up a pair in the third quarter by stripping him.
On offense, Smart took just three shots and did not make any, but did well in a distributing role, finishing with seven assists.
“I was proud of Marcus Smart,” Brown said. “I think he did a great job keeping us together.”
⋅ The Celtics honored franchise legend Tommy Heinsohn with a moment of silence prior to the game and a tribute video during it. Also, Boston’s players wore warmup T-shirts that said ‘Tommy’ on them.
Heinsohn, 86, who died from renal failure on Nov. 9, was elected to the Hall of Fame both as a Celtics player and as a coach, and worked as the team’s color commentator since 1981.