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O’Sullivan: Despite injuries, stakes still high for Celtics in playoffs

  • Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (center) goes to the basket past Boston’s Jayson Tatum (0) during a regular-season game in December at TD Garden. The Celtics open their first-round series against the Bucks on Sunday at 1 p.m. in Boston. AP file

  • FILE - In this April 8, 2018 file photo, Boston Celtics' Terry Rozier (12) keeps the ball away from Atlanta Hawks' Tyler Dorsey (2) during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game in Boston. The Celtics enter the playoffs as the East’s No. 2 seed after a season filled with devastating injuries, beginning with Gordon Hayward's ankle injury in the season opener. But with Kyrie Irving’s recent knee surgery landing him on the sideline as well, it has an already-hobbled Boston team looking very vulnerable against a seventh-seeded Bucks team led by Giannis Antetokounmpo. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer) Michael Dwyer

  • FILE - In this April 1, 2018 file photo Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, back, drives the lane to the rim as Denver Nuggets forward Juan Hernangomez defends in the first half of an NBA basketball game in Denver. The Boston Celtics enter the playoffs as the East’s No. 2 seed after a season filled with devastating injuries, beginning with Gordon Hayward's ankle injury in the season opener. But with Kyrie Irving’s recent knee surgery landing him on the sideline as well, it has an already-hobbled Boston team looking very vulnerable against a seventh-seeded Bucks team led by Giannis Antetokounmpo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File ) David Zalubowski

  • Boston’s Brad Stevens has a chance to further his reputation as one of the league’s top coaches if he can take his short-handed Celtics on an extended run in the NBA playoffs. AP file


Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Celtics won’t be playing for a title when they open the playoffs Sunday against Milwaukee. Kyrie Irving’s knee troubles, and Gordon Hayward’s exploded ankle, saw to that. But there’s still plenty at stake for Boston in these playoffs.

If things go right, the story of the Celtics winning the 2019 NBA title will include lots of guys saying, “We couldn’t have won it without the playoff experience from 2018.” If things go wrong, the young Celtics could end up with postseason scars that may take years to heal.

Here’s a look at the Boston players, coaches and storylines with the most at stake in the playoffs:

Terry Rozier

With Irving, and Marcus Smart, out, Rozier has been force fed minutes and, to his credit, Rozier’s stats have fattened up accordingly. Sure, his shot selection can be questionable and coach Brad Stevens’s offense makes point guards look great (see: Thomas, Isaiah), but without Rozier stepping up in Irving’s absence Boston could have crumbled down the stretch instead of cementing its spot as the No. 2 seed in the East.

Rozier’s ascendance gives Danny Ainge and the Celtics another valuable asset. Rozier also gives Ainge better leverage with Smart, who is a free agent this summer. Or maybe Rozier can be part of a package that brings another superstar to Boston.

If Rozier continues to shine in the playoffs, his value will increase. If Rozier stumbles in the postseason – too many turnovers against Milwaukee’s long and ball-hawky defense, too many bad shots and a first-round loss to the Bucks – the value built during months of the regular season could vanish in a matter of days.

The young Jays

Simple logic dictates that Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum can only benefit from the extra playoff playing time, and extra playoff expectations and pressure, they will get due to the absence of Irving and Hayward. That’s certainly been the case during the regular season, and it makes sense it will continue in the postseason.

Brown prides himself on being a student, so maybe he can use what he learned in last year’s playoff to take a leap this year. Tatum has played beyond his years all season, maybe he continues to smash rookie stereotypes in the postseason. Maybe those two lead Boston into a second-round showdown with their young counterparts in Philadelphia (more on that below).

Then again, both of them will be called on to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo at some point, and that could end badly. Maybe Antetokounmpo takes his already considerable talents to another level, a playoff level. Maybe the Greek gets Freaky on young Brown and Tatum and leaves them shell-shocked for postseasons to come.

Brad Stevens

What Stevens did without Irving and Hayward and with guys like Shane Larkin and Aron Baynes will almost assuredly win him the NBA’s Coach of the Year. He’s already considered one of the game’s elite coaches, but if he leads this depleted team on a playoff run his reputation will escalate accordingly.

As good as Stevens may be, this is still a player’s league, and the Bucks have the best player in this series in Antetokounmpo. Maybe the Greek Freak runs rough shod over Stevens’s schemes, making his coach (quick, can you name the Milwaukee coach? Go ahead, try it … didn’t think so), Joe Prunty, look like the COY and Stevens like an interim.

Stevens’s impact could also shift in the postseason. During the regular season, he can beat teams with his systems if they don’t have the time, or focus, to prepare. During the playoffs, teams will have plenty of time and players should be completely focused. Then again, Stevens will have extra time to dissect his postseason foes and devise schemes to beat them.

The veterans

The aforementioned Thomas got much of the credit for Boston’s run to the Eastern Conference finals last year, Irving and Stevens got most of the credit for the 55-27 record this year and some critics, including local ones, don’t even think Al Horford was worthy of All-Star consideration, let alone recognition. Yet his teammates, this year’s and last, will tell you that Horford is central to the Celtics’ success, even if his contributions can’t always be quantified in simple statistics or be appreciated by simple eyes.

But if Horford leads this team past the Bucks, and especially if he leads them beyond that, it will be hard to not give him credit or recognition. Although Tatum, Brown and Rozier might score most of the points and Horford could wind up leading in his usual “all the little things” kind of way.

Still, Horford and Boston’s other veterans – Marcus Morris, Baynes and even Greg Monroe – will need to provide the steadying hand of experience to a crew powered by youth. If they can’t do that, the Celtics might have a hard time getting past the Bucks, and they might be looking for new veterans for future playoff runs.

The Boston-Philly thing

If the Celtics can get out of the first round, chances are the 76ers will be waiting for them in the conference semifinals, although Miami could be a tough out for Philly. A playoff meeting could reignite the historic Boston-Philly NBA rivalry that saw Bill Russell battle Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird take on Julius Erving.

But what if the Celtics can’t beat the Bucks, and what if Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and the Sixers roll through an underwhelming East and make a premature trip to the Finals? Maybe that would crank up the rivalry for next season, or maybe if would push Philadelphia past Boston and leave the Celtics scrambling to catch up and be worthy of rival status.

Boston may not have a realistic chance at the 2018 NBA title, but they still have chips on the table as the playoffs begin.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341, tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)