BOSTON — By now, the Boston Celtics have come to expect adversity.
They were barely five minutes into the season when Gordon Hayward’s gruesome ankle injury offered the first collective gasp in what would be an 82-game schedule replete with more head-shaking moments.
The most recent setback, season-ending knee surgery for Kyrie Irving, left teams in the East almost hoping for a chance to face the wounded Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.
Boston enters as the No. 2 seed. But it is certainly vulnerable opposite a seventh-seeded Bucks team with which it split four games this season. Milwaukee is led by one of the league’s budding young talents in 23-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo.
If there is a silver lining for the Celtics it’s that they went 14-8 without Irving for the last 22 games.
“It’s forcing our group to grow up quicker than maybe some of our guys were supposed to,” forward Al Horford said. “I think that this is a great opportunity that we have in front of us. We’ve really worked hard all year to put ourselves in this position.”
Antetokounmpo is entering his third postseason and already has turned into a marquee player. He averaged 33.5 points this season against the Celtics, more than any player. His next step is to lead the Bucks to a victory in a playoff series.
“Right now, (the) playoffs is not about stats. It’s all about winning,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s going to be a long road. We’re going to try to go to the end.”
Trying to slow him must be a team effort, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.
“We’ll have to guard him with everybody on our team,” he said. “It’s not on one person to guard Giannis. We have to throw a lot of different bodies at him.”
Some things to watch in Bucks vs. Celtics:
Injuries aside, Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon expects Boston to be tough.
“It’s another level, I think we all know that,” Brogdon said. “I think we gotta not be distracted by all the outside noise, by what people expect us to do or what another team is lacking. I think we have to go in and we have to play our game.”
FILLING IRVING’S SHOES
With Irving out, the Celtics will look to key their offense with third-year guard Terry Rozier. He’s played the best ball of his career this season, appearing in 80 games (16 starts) and averaging career highs in points (11.3), rebounds (4.7) and assists (2.9).
“I got to control the game, basically just filling what a point guard is supposed to do — filling Kyrie’s shoes as much as I can,” he said. “Sometimes it might mean taking tough shots and making tough shots. … Do what I can to give this team and boost and put us in position to win.”
The Bucks are stocked with talent. But consistent defense has been a problem. At times, they’ve been blown out in the first quarter, forcing them to expend more effort to get back into the game. At worst, it turns into an outcome like the one that played out in the regular-season finale at Philadelphia, which turned into a lopsided lead for the streaking 76ers by halftime. Antetokounmpo said the team has lacked focus at times. They can’t make that mistake against the Celtics.
“I think understanding the tendencies, understanding your roles, understanding assignments, all of those things become paramount because each possession is important,” Bucks coach Joe Prunty said.
The Bucks basically have the same core back from the team that lost in the first round to Toronto last season. They add two key pieces to the mix in point guard Eric Bledsoe and forward Jabari Parker. Both players are proven scorers. Bledsoe played well down the stretch, when his 3-point shooting picked up. Parker looks back at full strength after missing the first three-plus months rehabbing the second knee injury of his career.
AP Sports Writer Genaro Armas in Milwaukee contributed to this report.
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