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Celtics’ missing pieces will provide the key to beating the Bucks

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The Celtics narrowly fell to the Bucks on Thursday night, but a healthy roster might have turned the tables.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday night, in a rather abrupt wake-up call from their week-long vacation, the Celtics lost a nail-biter to the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks. It was a game that has stirred up a fair bit of controversy in just about every way you can imagine, from Kyrie Irving’s poor shooting night and last-second missed layup to the questionable officiating on the final possession. It was frankly a little bit exhausting.

Lost in the noise, perhaps, was the fact that the Celtics once played an incredibly competitive game against an Eastern Conference contender, and they did so without two key rotation players that might have swung the outcome in their favor if they had played. Let’s take a look at the Celtics’ two missing pieces, and the critical impact their absence had on Thursday’s game.

Gordon Hayward

The first and most obvious absence of the night was Hayward, who twisted his ankle while working out with Semi Ojeleye and missed Thursday’s contest. Coming off a week-long break, the Celtics posted one of their sloppiest offensive performances of the season, shooting just 38% from the field. Kyrie Irving couldn’t buy a bucket for much of the night, shooting just 9-of-27, and the starting lineup as a whole combined to hit just 30 of their 81 attempts.

It was an inopportune night to be missing Hayward, who has been enjoying a major renaissance on the offensive end in recent weeks. Hayward has scored at least 18 points in four of his last five games, including a crucial 26-point performance in Philadelphia to top the Sixers prior to the All-Star break. There’s been a bit of a bounce in his step in recent weeks, and he looks better physically than he has all year.

Through his career, Hayward’s offensive value has always come from his versatility. He brings a little bit of everything to the table — shooting, passing, ball-handling — without taking much of anything away. That’s been visible in recent weeks, as his newly invigorated drives to the rim have been complemented by the return of his jump shot, and in a game where the Celtics barely seemed capable of bringing the ball up court, Hayward’s jack-of-all-trades skill set was sorely needed.

As a whole, the Celtics’ offense is certainly better than it looked against Milwaukee. Irving and Horford will seldom shoot as poorly as the 17-of-48 they combined for on Thursday night, and when they’re hitting shots, the offense will loosen up for everyone else. However, with Morris continuing to cool off — he shot just 4-of-12 against Milwaukee, and is shooting just 43% from the field since the start of 2019 — the need for a third true offensive hub is clear.

Aron Baynes

On the flip side, Boston’s defense was actually quite effective for much of the night. The Celtics blocked nine shots and forced 15 Milwaukee turnovers, while limiting the Bucks to a fairly gross 42% shooting performance of their own. Anchoring the defense effort was — as usual — Al Horford, who was basically flying around the court during his 37 minutes, blocking three shots and snagging a pair of steals.

Whenever Horford went to the bench, however, the Celtics’ frontcourt situation was rather dire. The trio of Daniel Theis, Semi Ojeleye and Guerschon Yabusele combined for a miserable -24, and looked perpetually outmatched by Giannis and the Bucks’ stretchy frontcourt. Brad Stevens attempted to compensate for their lack of depth by matching Horford’s minutes with Giannis’ — one reason for Horford’s abnormally high minutes — and even tried to bring in Yabusele to add a different dimension off the bench, but none of it panned out. Even the notorious “Giannis Stopper” Ojeleye struggled to slow down the Greek Freak on Thursday night.

There’s really no perfect answer for Antetokounmpo’s nightmarish mix of size and speed, but Aron Baynes was born to make opponents’ lives difficult in the paint, and his particular brand of toughness could have come in handy. The kind of vicious physicality Giannis thrives off of can be quite a bit more difficult when he has All of Australia in his face.

In the end, the Celtics were one layup (or foul call) away from beating the best team in the Eastern Conference on their home floor on Thursday night. While they may be running out of wiggle room for such moral victories, as each game grows ever more important while they jockey with Philadelphia and Indiana for playoff seeding, it remains encouraging to see them hang with elite competition. In a seven-game playoff series, they’ve shown they’ll compete and a healthy roster might just swing the tides in their favor.