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Positives aplenty as shorthanded Celtics push full-strength Bucks

A win would have been huge, but without three starters, the Celtics put up a valiant effort

NBA: Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Without Al Horford, Robert Williams or Jayson Tatum in the lineup, the Boston Celtics were trotting out unorthodox lineups against the 50-win Milwaukee Bucks. The second game of a back-to-back just a week before playoff action begins, Ime Udoka saw this trip as a great opportunity to let key guys rest.

The Celtics lost 127-121 and dropped to the third seed in the East as a result. The glass-half-empty approach would see this game’s late collapse as a continued sign of problems the C’s have in closing out games; the C’s led 121-118 with 2:30 to play and didn’t score again.

The glass-half-full approach would see the value in hanging with the full-strength Bucks while shorthanded. In fact, there were many positive performances ahead of the postseason worth highlighting.

Jaylen The Creator

Brown was excellent in the alpha role on Thursday, posting the second triple-double of his career. His 22 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds showed how he really did everything for the Celtics. Most notable was his passing, as the 11 dimes tied a season-high.

Brown operated more within ball screens than he typically does, and he looked mighty comfortable there. While the habit of leaving his feet before making a pass is not the greatest one, he can adjust late and find the open guy. The result of his creativity was open 3-point attempts for his teammates:

Sometimes the brilliance of Tatum prevents us from recognizing just how damn good Jaylen has gotten. He’s such a good creator, an aggressive scorer and a tremendously well-rounded player. Heading into the playoffs, this was a nice reminder of how good Jaylen is and that the combination of him and Tatum is what makes the Celtics so special offensively.

White Hot

When the Celtics gave up a first-round pick at the trade deadline to acquire Derrick White, the reaction among the Celtics faithful was mixed. His arrival coincided with Boston’s major ascent in the East, but he never really arrived on offense. He only shot 21.6% from 3-point range in his first 17 games in the green and white.

He’s found the range of late, though. Since March 23rd — an eight-game sample — White is 50% from deep. Thursday was his crowning achievement, going 4-8 and making some big shots in the first half. White had a quick trigger, too, taking and making big ones as soon as the ball fell in his hands.

White becoming a reliable, consistent 3-point threat right in time for the playoffs may be the biggest addition this Celtics team could get other than full health. He’s been tremendous in every other aspect for the C’s.

Hauser’s Time

The Celtics have played an eight or nine-man rotation for much of the last month, and that is likely to continue in the postseason. As injuries have reared their head, the Celtics do need someone ready in the “next man up” position to log some important minutes. If they need a wing shooter, we may be at the point where rookie Sam Hauser has surpassed Aaron Nesmith in the rotation.

Hauser had three triples early, finished with 11 points and 4 rebounds in 18 minutes and was automatic in the right corner.

Nesmith was out of rhythm yet again, missing all three of his 3-point attempts and dropping him to a mere 27 percent on the season. Hauser — a little bigger at 6’8” — is over 40% on the season and is 10-23 in games where he plays ten minutes or more. He’s consistent, and that dependability is more important in the playoffs for a role player than anything.

The downside to any Hauser minutes, should he crack the rotation for a minute or two at a time, is on the defensive end. Opponents can target him, and he isn’t that switchable. As soon as he checked in, the Bucks were able to get mismatch posts for Giannis where he was covered by Hauser. The rookie simply isn’t strong or savvy enough to win that battle, and got beat for a catch-and-finish layup after an Antetokounmpo seal:

Hauser was converted from a two-way to a standard contract back in February so that he can be eligible for the Celtics in the postseason. This game should serve as proof to Udoka that he should be ahead of Nesmith in the playoff pecking order, even if he’s more of a defensive worry than Aaron.

Theis the Bucket

Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis kept the Celtics’ offense afloat in the third quarter, especially in the moments when Jaylen sat. Theis was impactful as a roller, a 3-point shooter and was in a positive groove on both ends. The pick-and-roll chemistry between he and Smart was notable as a weapon the Celtics could go to, especially in the first round. In moments when Tatum or Brown sit and Theis comes off the bench, the two-man PNR combo could be very potent.

That tandem helped the Celtics crawl back from a ten-point halftime deficit. Time and time again Theis has been the perfect insurance policy big, and he may be good enough to help the Celtics stay afloat without Robert Williams.

The playoffs are almost upon us, with one more regular season game remaining. Udoka and this team have earned the benefit of the doubt. No matter what seed they secure, the Celtics are a resilient and tough group ready for the playoffs. The reserves gaining confidence in a tight game against a playoff team could go a long way in a few weeks.

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