BOSTON — Injuries have forced the Celtics to play a lot of young, inexperienced players in prominent roles all season, and their first-round NBA playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks was no different.
Without Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Daniel Theis for the whole postseason, and no Marcus Smart for the first four contests of Round 1, the C’s relied heavily on third-year guard Terry Rozier and rookie forwards Jayson Tatum Semi Ojeleye versus the Bucks.
All three stepped up in a huge way Saturday night to propel the C’s to the second round with a 112-96 Game 7 win over the Bucks at TD Garden.
Celtics center Al Horford had plenty of praise for this trio after the victory, and noted that this experience is invaluable for the young guys.
“It’s huge,” Horford said. “Being put in this position, at such early stages in their careers with big responsibilities and big roles, I felt like they handled it really well. Tatum was great (Saturday night), just very poised, took what the defense game him. Terry, as well.”
Rozier tied Horford with a team-leading 26 points, which also is a new career playoff high for the Louisville product. He was efficient, too, shooting 10-for-16 from the floor and 5-for-8 on 3-pointers. He
hit a 3-pointer with 5:45 left in the fourth quarter to put the C’s up 98-82, then forced Eric Bledsoe into a turnover on the baseline during the ensuing Bucks possession, and finally came down and hit another 3-ball to give Boston a commanding 101-82 edge.
Rozier won his starting point guard duel with Bledsoe, a veteran who the Bucks acquired via trade early in the season for this type of setting. The 24-year-old gave the Celtics valuable scoring, playmaking, hustle and rebounding throughout the series, finishing the seven-game matchup with averages of 17.6 points, 6.7 assists and 4.3 rebounds per contest.
Tatum took command offensively in key stretches of Game 7 when the Bucks made runs that trimmed Boston’s lead to just a couple of points. He attacked the basket and finished at the rim consistently, and also hit a few clutch 3-pointers that swung momentum back in the C’s favor and got the crowd into the game.
The Duke alum scored 20 points on 7-for-17 shooting while adding six rebounds and five assists.
Ojeleye was a huge difference maker in the series as well, particularly when Celtics head coach Brad Stevens started him in Game 5 so he could spend a lot of time guarding Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. The rookie forward did as well as could be expected defensively against one of the league’s top players, helping hold him to just 16 points in Game 5 and 22 points in Game 7 (both wins for Boston).
“Semi is probably the guy that we need to be talking about because defensively, we’re not able to do all that we were able to do without Semi,” Horford said.
“I felt like he changed the series for us. A lot of credit goes to him. He did an unbelievable job on Giannis. It’s just a lot of credit for him because he stayed ready and he didn’t always play a lot all year. When we needed him the most, he stepped up. We don’t win the series without him.”
The next-man-up mentality is something the Celtics are very familiar with after all the injuries they’ve suffered this season. Stevens and his staff have done a great job keeping guys ready for when their opportunities arrive, and they’ll need to continue to do that in Round 2 against a talented and confident Philadelphia 76ers squad.
“It’s just something we’ve had to go through all season, unfortunately,” Tatum said. “Guy after guy go down but someway, somehow we figured it out, and I think that’s what’s unique about our team.”
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