C's Aim to Maintain Defensive Toughness vs. Defending Champs

The Boston Celtics have begun to pick up steam following a 2-5 start, with three wins in their last four games. Such momentum will be put to the test Friday night when they host the defending-champion Milwaukee Bucks at TD Garden.

The Bucks are fresh off two tough road wins against the Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks, respectively. In order to to avoid landing on Milwaukee’s budding list of Atlantic Division victims, Jayson Tatum says his Celtics will have to come with the same level of defensive toughness that they’ve been bringing over the last week-plus.

“We gotta be tough, and I think it starts on the defensive end,” Tatum said following Friday morning’s shootaround in Brighton. “In the last some-odd games or so, I think we've really been playing well on that. Obviously we wish some more shots to fall, but I think it’s starting to come together as a collective on the defensive end.”

During their 3-1 stretch, the Celtics have a defensive rating of 93.9, which is by far the best in the league during that span. Washington is a distant second with a mark of 98.7.

However, the Celtics will be playing without one of their best perimeter defenders in Jaylen Brown, who will miss his third straight game after straining his right hamstring Oct. 4 in Miami.

Tatum has taken on a heavy load so far in Brown’s absence, averaging 27.0 points, 11.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 1.5 steals in the last two games, while shooting 60 percent from 3-point range. But against Milwaukee’s deep roster, he’ll need the rest of Boston’s wings to step up as well.

“It gives Romeo [Langford], gives Aaron [Nesmith], gives those guys more of an opportunity when we’ve got somebody like JB out,” Tatum said. “I think, for me, just continue to be myself. I think I draw even more attention when [Brown] is not out there. But I think everybody else gets to step up and fill in.”

The Bucks will be missing a few key players as well. All-Star wing and notorious Celtic-killer Khris Middleton has been in the league’s Health and Safety Protocols for the past six days, and starting center Brook Lopez hasn’t played since Opening Night due to a back injury.

However, Milwaukee has gotten boosts from several other players throughout Lopez and Middleton’s absences.

Newcomer Grayson Allen is averaging 15.4 points per game in his starting role at the wing spot and has produced the second-most total points on the team behind Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks have also gotten boosts off the bench from Bobby Portis (12.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game) and Massachusetts native Pat Connaughton (10.9 points and 5.0 rebounds per game).

And of course, there’s the Greek Freak and All-Defensive point guard Jrue Holliday to deal with as well.

“This is a really good team,” Tatum said. “Obviously they got some great players and guys step up. When they have Lopez and Khris out, other guys have stepped right in and came up big for them, especially [the last few games]. And a lot of those guys off the bench have been playing well.”

One more guy who has played well off the bench for the Bucks is a familiar face in Semi Ojeleye. The former Celtic wing has averaged 10.0 points and 5.5 rebounds per game during Milwaukee’s two-game winning streak, all while shooting 77.8 percent from the field and 83.3 percent from 3-point range.

Tatum is particularly looking forward to that matchup, considering the bond he had with Ojeleye, both being a part of Boston’s 2017 draft class.

“I got to play four years with Semi and I love him to death,” Tatum said. “I’m happy for him, but I’m gonna try to go at him tonight.”

The Celtics, as a collective unit, are going to have to go at the entire Bucks team tonight, given Milwaukee’s recent success against top Eastern Conference competition. However, the C’s may be the toughest opponent yet on Milwaukee’s East-Coast road trip, considering their recent dominance on the defensive end.

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