It’s been roughly 10 weeks since the Celtics rallied from a 19-point first-quarter deficit to beat the Milwaukee Bucks at home Oct. 30. The teams will meet again at Fiserv Forum on Thursday in much the same situation as last year, with the Bucks emerging as the primary obstacle between the Celtics and the NBA Finals.
The defending champion Toronto Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard and have had to deal with a plethora of injuries. And the Philadelphia 76ers, considered Finals favorites at the start of the season, still look as if they aren’t quite meshing. But the Bucks have lived up to all of their preseason billing, winning 35 of their first 41 games and leading the NBA in point differential at 12.3, meaning they usually blow out their opponents.
Are the Celtics ready for such a challenge? Two weeks ago, the answer to that question would have been an emphatic yes. But with the Celtics losing three straight games — two to teams with losing records — before running off consecutive wins, the answer is no longer so clear.
The Celtics will play the top two teams in the NBA in a four-day span, with the Los Angeles Lakers coming into TD Garden on Monday. It’s one thing to beat New Orleans, Chicago, and Detroit, but it’s quite another to win consecutive games against the Bucks and Lakers.
The Celtics have looked strong in their past two wins, and the entire roster is beginning to get healthy. Romeo Langford and Vincent Poirier returned from injuries Monday, leaving second-year center Robert Williams (hip edema) has the lone player still missing time.
The Celtics may have caught Milwaukee at the right time. In their win over Chicago on Monday, six players scored in double figures, illustrating the team’s depth and versatility. But it’s going to take a few weeks for the Celtics’ healthy roster to really find cohesion, and that’s a good thing.
The Celtics don’t want to peak too early. Injuries have provided players such as Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart plenty of rest, meaning they can go 100 percent in March and April to make a run at the No. 1 seed.
“We just had a tough stretch,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said. “I know what our guys are capable of doing, and I’m confident that we’re going to see the Celtics that we saw weeks before, and it’s good that we’re getting closer to becoming whole again.”
Looking back at that first matchup, the Bucks jumped out to a 34-19 lead, and the game was starting to look like one from the disastrous playoff series last spring, when the Celtics basically gave up in the final four games after falling behind. This Celtics team rallied, outscoring the Bucks, 74-47, in the second half, behind 32 points from Kemba Walker and 25 from Jayson Tatum.
On defense, the Celtics limited MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo’s shots. He finished with just 22 points on 8-for-13 shooting and zero 3-pointers. Khris Middleton turned in his usual stellar game with a team-leading 26 points.
But the Celtics defense stymied the remainder of the Bucks’ lineup. And that’s the key to having any chance to unseat Milwaukee. Brook Lopez, Eric Bledsoe, and Wesley Matthews were a combined 6-for-24 shooting that night for 20 points.
The Celtics can accept Antetokounmpo and Middleton combining for 50 if the remaining Bucks struggle to score. What has been critical to Milwaukee’s success is the play of Bledsoe, who looks like a completely different player than the bumbling guard who was the target of Celtics fans’ jeering during the past two playoff series.
Milwaukee began the season 6-3, then ran off 18 consecutive wins. Antetokounmpo has played like the reigning MVP, and the Celtics have always had trouble stopping him, even when they had Al Horford. Their defense will be tested Thursday night, with coach Brad Stevens likely to give Semi Ojeleye some Antetokounmpo minutes, because he’s their strongest post defender.
The good news for the Celtics in these games against the Bucks and Lakers is that health won’t be an issue. They will get a legitimate chance to see how they fare against the league’s elite, and that information could perhaps help Ainge decide if he needs to make a move before the Feb. 6 trade deadline.
Ainge told the Globe he doesn’t feel pressed to make a particular move. Celtics brass wants to see this team healthy for more than a handful of games.
The Celtics’ strength is their versatility. It’s the number of productive wing players they have. The win over Chicago was a good sign because they shared the ball, they scored with the extra pass, and they walked away feeling satisfied that their depth can beat most teams.
They are going to have to rely on that depth against the best teams.
“That’s when it’s the most fun for me personally and fun for everybody, when everyone is involved, everyone eats, and you’re just having fun, making the right play, getting easy looks,” Hayward said. “Getting dunks. Getting open threes. We have a lot of talent on this team, and when everybody is moving the ball and involved, it makes us hard to guard.”