MILWAUKEE — Their response was heartening after Friday’s disappointing loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Celtics chipped away at the Milwaukee Bucks all evening, waiting for their offense to unleash, and it finally happened.
The offensively challenged Celtics scored 32 fourth-quarter points and Jeff Green (12 points) showed signs of snapping out of his season-opening slump on Saturday night. As a result, the Celtics reached .500 (3-3) with their most impressive win of the season, 96-92, at Bradley Center.
Green led a fourth-quarter surge with the type of offensive arsenal he displayed during the preseason, and Paul Pierce (25 points) added key jumper after jumper to counter a brilliant night by Monta Ellis, who led Milwaukee with 32 points, 11 in the fourth quarter.
A pair of Kevin Garnett jumpers gave the Celtics an 85-82 lead with 2:29 left. After the Bucks sliced the deficit to 91-90 with 25.3 seconds left, Jason Terry, Pierce, and Rajon Rondo sank free throws to help Boston seal the win.
Rondo finished with 10 points and 10 assists, while Garnett tallied 18 points and six rebounds. Terry, in the starting lineup for the first time this season, added 15 points.
“It wasn’t a pretty game, but I thought we grinded it out at the end,” Garnett said. “Monta got going a little bit. It was a gritty win. It was a good team win.
“I thought Paul got going right when we needed him to get going. We followed his lead from then on.”
Brandon Bass, inserted into the starting lineup, and Green began the fourth quarter with consecutive baskets to even the game at 68. Green scored 6 of the Celtics’ first 10 points of the period and his layup gave the Boston a 74-72 lead. The teams exchanged baskets, with Pierce beginning a duel with Ellis.
Pierce made a layup; Ellis responded with a 3-point play. Pierce canned a 16-footer; Ellis a 15-footer; Pierce a 3-pointer; Ellis a 3-pointer. Finally, Garnett forced the Celtics ahead with his two jumpers.
Former Celtic Marquis Daniels, playing the role the Celtics desperately wanted him to play in Boston but couldn’t, sliced the deficit to 1 with a layup with 25.3 seconds left, and the Celtics withstood shaky free throw shooting to prevail.
The Celtics led by as many as 7 in the third quarter (51-44) by stymieing the Bucks and getting 6 early points from Pierce. But the Celtics couldn’t keep Milwaukee off the boards, especially physical forward Larry Sanders (10 points, 12 rebounds), and the Bucks took a 55-53 lead with an 8-0 run.
Daniels, getting quality minutes off the Milwaukee bench, scored 6 points in the quarter, including a runner and layup for a 68-64 Bucks lead at the end of the third.
It seems that when the Celtics solved one defensive issue, something else comes to the forefront.
On Saturday, they made sure to patrol the ballhandling and roaming of Brandon Jennings, who punished the Celtics for 21 points and 13 assists in the first meeting, a 99-88 victory in the TD Garden opener Nov. 2.
But that special attention led to holes in the pick-and-roll defense and Milwaukee center Samuel Dalembert was the beneficiary, scoring 9 points in the first seven minutes as the Bucks took a 15-13 lead. Jennings was less aggressive and less effective than the first meeting, but Dalembert’s production was the key to Milwaukee’s 22-20 lead.
Doc Rivers called a timeout and the Celtics adjusted their defense, but that simply allowed Ellis to navigate for jumpers and runners. He led Milwaukee with 13 points at the break on 12 shots. The Celtics also struggled on the defensive glass, allowing Milwaukee to snare nine offensive rebounds, five of by reserves Sanders and Ekpe Udoh.
Frustration began to set in because the offense couldn’t respond with consistent baskets. In one stretch midway through the second quarter, the trio of Garnett, Terry, and Chris Wilcox were 7-for-8 shooting while the rest of the Celtics were 1 of 17.
Jennings (4 points, 5 assists) drained a long 3-pointer and Ellis’s layup was goaltended by Garnett for a 40-30 Bucks lead with 3:17 left in the half. The Celtics responded with a game-saving 9-2 run to end the half as Pierce delivered his first basket, a 3-pointer, and Rondo converted an acrobatic putback to slice the deficit to 3.
The Celtics were still relying too heavily on Garnett. Besides Wilcox, the bench was 0-for-9 shooting, and that included 0 for 3 from Green, who also committed three of Boston’s 10 turnovers. Shooting 35.3 percent, they were fortunate to be so close.