Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 36 points in his return from Covid protocols, powering the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks to a 117-113 Christmas comeback win over the coronavirus-depleted Boston Celtics.
Antetokounmpo, who had missed five games, scored 29 points in the second half as the Bucks rallied to deny a gutsy Celtics squad that had nine players unavailable because of Covid-19 concerns, and 10 unavailable counting Al Horford, who cleared protocols but was deemed not yet game fit.
With the minimum required eight players in uniform – after German guard Dennis Schroder was ruled out by Covid concerns earlier Saturday – the Celtics took it to the NBA champions early.
Behind 14 first-quarter points from Jaylen Brown, they raced to a 35-22 first-quarter lead.
Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart combined for 69 points for the Celtics, who led by as many as 19 and were up by 13 with 5:28 remaining.
Antetokounmpo’s layup knotted the score at 111-111 with 1:29 to play.
Brown made two free throws to put Boston back on top, but Bucks reserve Wesley Matthews drained a three-pointer with 30.3 seconds remaining to put Milwaukee up by one – their first lead of the contest.
Boston wouldn’t get the lead again as Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton made three free throws.
Brown missed a three-pointer with seven-tenths of a second left, and Antetokounmpo grabbed the rebound to seal the win.
A Knicks first
The five-day Christmas Day slate opened at Madison Square Garden, where Kemba Walker’s resurgence continued as he became the first New York Knicks player to post a triple-double on the holiday to lead the way in a 101-87 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.
Walker, benched for nine games by coach Tom Thibodeau this month, has poured it on in his return to the lineup.
On Thursday, he had 44 in a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, but on Saturday, his 10 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists made an impact in the opening game of the NBA’s five-game Christmas Day slate.
“This is up there,” said Walker, who received a standing ovation when he pulled down his 10th rebound in the second half to achieve his first triple-double since 2014.
“This is only my second time playing on Christmas Day. But definitely a very special Christmas, definitely a very special moment to be playing at home in New York, crowd going wild, it was fun.”
Julius Randle scored 25 points and pulled down 12 rebounds for the Knicks, who led by as many as 21 points in the wire-to-wire victory.
Walker became the seventh NBA player to record a triple-double on Christmas. The great Oscar Robertson did it four times in the 1960s, and the most recent to do so was Golden State’s Draymond Green in 2017.
“I just wanted to come out here and get a win,” Walker said.
John Collins and Delon Wright scored 20 points apiece for the Hawks, who had eight players sidelined over Covid-19 concerns including star Trae Young.
Other games scheduled included the Golden State Warriors at the Phoenix Suns in a clash of the top two teams.
It’s just the sixth time the teams with the NBA’s best records have met on Christmas.
The two Western Conference pacesetters have already met twice in less than a month, the Suns winning in Phoenix before Golden State broke the Suns’ 18-game winning streak with a victory in San Francisco.
The Suns are aiming to stretch their narrow lead in the conference and extend their 15-game home winning streak.
“This is our game to settle it,” Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton said. “It’s going to be a great one.”
Later Saturday, the Los Angeles Lakers host a Brooklyn Nets team whose seven Covid absentees include Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge. And in the nightcap, the Utah Jazz hosted the Dallas Mavericks.