GARY WASHBURN | ON BASKETBALL
jim davis/globe staff
It’s not that the Celtics don’t miss Gordon Hayward. They certainly do. They have just done a wonderful job of moving forward without him, and there was no better example of their progression than Monday against the Milwaukee Bucks at TD Garden.
On the night of Oct. 18, one night after Hayward’s horrific ankle/leg injury five minutes into the season, the Bucks came to Boston and roughed up the shellshocked Celtics, pulling away in the fourth quarter for an 8-point win.
After that emotional and draining performance, the Celtics looked as if they would be long shots to compete in the Eastern Conference. What’s more, the club was unsure where its first win would come from.
Two nights later, facing the rejuvenated 76ers in their home opener, the Celtics grinded out a 10-point win despite playing a putrid first three quarters. There was a sense of relief after that victory. Less than a week later, the Celtics exacted revenge and beat the Bucks in Milwaukee.
Six weeks later, the Celtics beat Milwaukee again, leading for the final 43 minutes 5 seconds in a 111-100 win. The Celtics are a league-best 21-4 and are legitimate contenders, if not favorites in the East. It’s been an amazing ascension since the Hayward injury.
The Bucks have become a rival for the Celtics as both teams are trying feverishly to overcome the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East. The Celtics are ahead of Milwaukee, but they have major issues with the Bucks’ physicality and brilliant swingman Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo scored 37 points in their first meeting and was unstoppable. He scored 40 Monday and was unstoppable. The difference was the Celtics were stellar offensively, shooting 55.1 percent from the field and converting 10 of 22 3-pointers.
Also, the Celtics now know they can rely on rookie Jayson Tatum, who finished with 17 points, 14 in the first period as Boston opened a lead it would never relinquish. It was one of the Celtics’ better performances of the season because it came against an opponent chasing them and also an opponent that added a major piece — Eric Bledsoe — for the express purpose of beating teams like the Celtics.
Milwaukee entered Monday 8-3 with Bledsoe and appeared prepared to beat the Celtics again. But Boston responded with one of its best defensive halves since its 16-game winning streak ended. Milwaukee shot 37.5 percent in the first two quarters, at times looking completely confused and relying on Antetokounmpo to make plays late in the shot clock. It was good enough for a while as the Bucks sliced a 20-point deficit to 7, but the Celtics responded by challenging Antetokounmpo on defense with Al Horford.
For the Celtics to even have an opportunity at top-four seed in the Eastern Conference, they desperately need Horford to perform better than last season. So far that’s been the case.
When Boston signed Horford to a maximum contract in 2016, the Celtics faithful expected nightly double-doubles and dominant offensive performances. Horford is not that guy. He does everything well and is a stabilizer on both sides.
On Monday, he scored 20 points with 9 rebounds, 8 assists, and 1 blocked shot.
“It’s just the work that I’ve been putting in is starting to pay off for me,” he said. “Always coming in with the same focus, trying to play the right way, do the right things. I feel like we’re starting to find a rhythm as a group and I’m finding my rhythm, too.”
The Celtics haven’t forgotten about Hayward or his potential impact next season, but they have had to reinvent themselves on the fly. On the night of the injury, Tatum was playing in his first NBA game. Six weeks later, he has cemented himself in the starting lineup, playing with veteran poise as he has become a primary offensive weapon.
Tatum has been a major factor in saving the Celtics’ season.
“I think his mannerisms are just one that you can’t see if he’s rattled or not, his composure is at a very high level to only be 19,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said of Tatum. “He knows how to play the game and has a very high basketball IQ, which helps their team.”
Of course, Kyrie Irving has been the catalyst in the Celtics’ resurgence. Irving has not been the ball-dominant player he was in Cleveland. He is shooting two fewer shots per game than last season and he is doing a stellar job of picking his moments to score.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens waited Monday until there was 5:29 left with the Bucks charging to reinsert Irving for the finish. In that stretch, he scored 5 points to seal the win.
Irving has blended in well with his teammates, understanding his younger comrades need a leader, but also picking his moments to take over games, while picking others to share the wealth.
The Celtics are one of the league’s biggest surprises. Collectively, the players have responded from adversity to become a balanced, cohesive, and imposing team.
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