The sea parted for Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum as he cut into the paint, only for his opening to disappear in a split second as Giannis Antetokounmpo rotated to the front of the rim. Here was a midair meeting that was months in the making: a pair of leading MVP candidates on the NBA’s best teams, going chest-to-chest during the marquee contest of the league’s annual Christmas extravaganza.
Tatum barely adjusted to Antetokounmpo’s sudden emergence, angling just a bit to the right as he finished a poster dunk over a two-handed contesting effort by the Milwaukee Bucks big man. The force of the second-quarter slam led Tatum to hang on the rim with his right hand, swirling for emphasis as Antetokounmpo ducked out of the way.
“I was going to attack the rim,” Tatum said during a postgame interview. “If you go in to lay it up, he’s going to send it to the parking lot.”
The Celtics rode the momentum from Tatum’s mano-a-mano triumph to defeat the Bucks in a 139-118 runaway Sunday at TD Garden, highlighting a five-game holiday slate that was filled with standout performances by stars and several impressive comebacks.
Tatum posted a game-high 41 points, including a 20-point burst in the third quarter that put Boston comfortably in command, to go with seven rebounds and five assists. The three-time all-star shot 14 for 22 from the field, 3 for 7 from deep and 10 for 10 from the free throw line, settling into a groove that recalled his best performances from Boston’s second-round series victory over Milwaukee in May.
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As Tatum made it look easy, Antetokounmpo couldn’t find the touch on his jumper and struggled to find room to work against Boston’s interior defense, shooting 9 for 22 on the night. The two-time MVP finished with 27 points, nine rebounds and three assists as the Bucks were outshot and outworked by their conference rivals.
Tensions flared in the closing minutes despite Boston’s big lead as Antetokounmpo ended a frustrating night by picking up a technical foul for shoving Celtics guard Jaylen Brown in the back. Remarkably, Milwaukee was outscored by 27 points in Antetokounmpo’s 35 minutes.
“We limited him, but it’s crazy, [Antetokounmpo] had 27,” Celtics Coach Joe Mazzulla said. “We’re fortunate to have great matchups for him. We’re fortunate to have the ability to throw some different guys at him, and I thought we were disciplined in our execution.”
Milwaukee again felt the absence of forward Khris Middleton, who has missed the past five games with knee soreness. Middleton also missed last year’s second-round series, which robbed the 2021 NBA champions of one of their best late-game closers and perimeter defenders. Without their three-time all-star, the Bucks had no answer for Brown, who added 29 points, five rebounds and four assists, or the Celtics’ top-ranked offense, which hit 19 three-pointers.
Tatum had a signature performance, but he was hardly the only star to rise to the occasion. With Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry sidelined by a shoulder injury and Kevin Durant watching from home because his Brooklyn Nets didn’t make the cut for the Christmas quintuple-header, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic, Ja Morant and Nikola Jokic helped fill the void.
Sunday’s biggest upset came at Chase Center in San Francisco, where the Curry-less Warriors turned active defense and 32 points from Jordan Poole into a 123-109 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. Klay Thompson added 24 points and received one of the Warriors’ six technical fouls for celebrating with a bit too much gusto while crouching over Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks in the closing minutes.
“I don’t think it warranted a technical, but I forgot about the taunting rule,” Thompson said. “It’s always fun to talk trash. We’ve been doing that since we were in middle school. It was a good night to send a message because you never know who you’re going to see down the road.”
Golden State, which has struggled badly since Curry was sidelined, raised its energy level and focus for the playoff rematch. Poole did a little bit of everything in offsetting a big night from Morant, drilling a deep step-back three-pointer, leaking out in transition for a dunk and getting ejected for receiving his second technical foul with about nine minutes remaining.
“[The Grizzlies] are the young, up-and-coming team,” said Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, who also received a technical foul. “There’s been a lot of chirping back and forth. It’s all healthy, and it’s good stuff. It’s the spirit of competition. Last year’s series was really contested and heated. We’re trying to keep it rolling, and they’re trying to knock us off the mountain.”
The Grizzlies, who entered the day as the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed, couldn’t capitalize on Poole’s early exit because they were unable to muster any offense aside from Morant’s electric individual effort. The all-star guard, who had campaigned for Memphis to get its first Christmas appearance, finished with 36 points, seven rebounds and eight assists in an entertaining but futile one-man show.
After three quarters, Morant was Memphis’s only player in double figures; Jaren Jackson Jr. spent most of the night in foul trouble, and guards Desmond Bane and Brooks never found their rhythm from outside. Morant drew gasps with an early left-handed layup and an audacious dunk attempt over Anthony Lamb that barely missed, but he forced the issue with his teammates struggling, shooting 2 for 10 from beyond the arc and committing six turnovers. The Grizzlies shot 9 for 39 from deep.
In the day’s opener, the Philadelphia 76ers scored a 119-112 victory over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden thanks to 35 points and eight rebounds from Embiid and 29 points and 13 assists from James Harden. After a sleepy start, Philadelphia’s stars took control in the second half as the Knicks’ offense sputtered down the stretch. Together, Embiid and Harden attempted 26 free throws against the overwhelmed New York defense.
“Our fouls, they hurt us,” Knicks Coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Embiid is a great player. Harden is a great player. If you’re not disciplined, that’s going to hurt you, and it did.”
It was a galvanizing victory for Philadelphia, one that led Embiid to soak in a fourth-quarter ovation from scattered 76ers fans in Manhattan. In addition to Embiid’s punishing play inside and Harden’s controlled orchestration, the 76ers got nine combined three-pointers from De’Anthony Melton and Georges Niang.
Melton, acquired in a summer trade with the Grizzlies, has brought a vital defensive intensity to Philadelphia’s backcourt as a stand-in starter for the injured Tyrese Maxey. The 76ers have won eight straight to climb into the Eastern Conference’s fifth seed.
Knicks guard Jalen Brunson, who finished with 23 points and 11 assists, left the contest in the fourth quarter with an apparent hip injury. Even before he departed, New York had stalled out, conceding a 24-9 run to start the fourth. After running off eight straight wins, the Knicks have lost three straight.
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Sunday’s second contest saw Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks follow the 76ers’ lead by launching a massive second-half comeback against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. Though James led all scorers with 38 points in his record-setting 17th appearance on Christmas, the Mavericks had 51 points in the third quarter to cruise to a 124-115 home victory.
Doncic eased into the game but finished with 32 points, nine rebounds and nine assists, draining a corner three-pointer late in the fourth quarter to slam the door. Dallas hit 18 three-pointers, doubling Los Angeles’s total.
“We talked about being ready to initiate, sustain and finish with energy, effort and competitiveness,” Lakers Coach Darvin Ham said. “We left it in the locker room at halftime. Giving up a 51-point quarter is unacceptable — completely unacceptable.”
Dallas used the holiday to celebrate franchise legend Dirk Nowitzki by unveiling a bronze statue outside American Airlines Center during a pregame ceremony. Naturally, the 44-year-old Nowitzki, who is eligible for Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame induction in 2023, was depicted shooting one of his patented one-legged fadeaway jumpers.
“It says there on the side, under my name on the base, it’s 21 letters for 21 years,” Nowitzki said. “I think it sums up my career here for the Dallas Mavericks perfectly. It says, ‘Loyalty never fades away.’ ”
The Lakers, who lost Anthony Davis to a foot injury this month, fell for the fourth straight time without their all-star big man. To make matters worse, Los Angeles has four games remaining on a five-game trip as Davis remains out indefinitely, raising the possibility that James and company will miss the playoffs for a second straight year.
Jokic, meanwhile, led the Denver Nuggets to a dramatic 128-125 overtime victory against the Phoenix Suns in the holiday nightcap. The back-to-back MVP finished with 41 points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists, but he received a big lift from guard Jamal Murray, who scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, including a game-tying dunk in the closing seconds of regulation.
Suns guard Devin Booker, who had missed the previous three games with a groin injury, played just four minutes before aggravating the issue. Nevertheless, Phoenix fought hard on the road thanks to a team-high 31 points from reserve guard Landry Shamet.
To seal the win in overtime, Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon threw down a dunk over Shamet, which the referees originally deemed to be a charge. Once the call was overturned, Denver held a three-point lead and was able to ice the game at the free throw line.
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