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GARY WASHBURN | ON BASKETBALL

Nights like Thursday in Milwaukee expose the Celtics bench

Eric Bledsoe and Milwaukee had their way with Semi Ojeleye and the Celtics bench on Thursday, a key part in the NBA leaders holding off Boston.Morry Gash/Associated Press/Associated Press

MILWAUKEE — If Thursday wasn’t an indication that the Celtics need to upgrade their bench, then it could be a frustrating final three months of the regular season and perhaps an early playoff exit in April.

That’s how serious this matter is. The Celtics like all the players on their roster. They have essentially maximized the talent off their bench. But they desperately need more help.

The Celtics’ 128-123 loss to the NBA-best Milwaukee Bucks displayed the bench will get trounced on most nights against high-level teams. Donte DiVincenzo and George Hill combined for 32 points and seven 3-pointers. The entire Celtics’ bench scored 23 points and made three 3-pointers.

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And on nights when they are shorthanded — Jaylen Brown sat out with a sprained right thumb Thursday — and Marcus Smart has to move to the starting lineup, the offense suffers. The Celtics are playing a bunch of kids and inexperienced players when the starters are out of the game.

The lone scoring threat is center Enes Kanter, but he can’t be depended on to score in spurts or carry the offense when the starters are resting. The rest of the bunch plays hard, gives strong effort on defense, and is capable of an occasional bucket, but against the league’s top teams, that just isn’t good enough.

The Bucks essentially sent hand-written invitations to Grant Williams and Semi Ojeleye to shoot. Javonte Green is a solid defender and high flyer, but he isn’t a scorer. Brad Wanamaker turned in a sparkling November, but has been putrid ever since. He was 1-for-5 shooting Thursday.

It’s time for an upgrade, a trade or signing of a veteran who can score. Jamal Crawford is still out there looking for work. He is pushing 40 and struggled last season with the muddling Phoenix Suns, but has the ability to still get buckets. If the Portland Trail Blazers can give Carmelo Anthony a shot — and it has been a successful move — then the Celtics can nab Crawford.

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If not Crawford, then somebody. Celtics coach Brad Stevens made a telling statement after the game, realizing his roster is top heavy. When Jayson Tatum, Brown, Gordon Hayward, Smart, and Kemba Walker are healthy and playing well, the Celtics are indeed a contender.

But when they’re not? Or when they’re banged up?

“I thought Semi gave us some good minutes. Enes had that little stretch where he played pretty well, but we’ve just got a lot of guys that are in it really for the first and second time,” Stevens said. “And they’re just got to grow through it. I thought Javonte did a couple of good things.

“We’re gonna ride our best five as we’ve talked about quite a bit. And we need everybody else to play a role around them. But we need those five to be awfully good.”

In other words, if our top five players aren’t in prime form, the Celtics are Eastern Conference toast. And to be honest, this franchise has worked too hard to respond from last year’s disastrous season to not upgrade the roster if that means a long playoff run.

The Celtics had hopes that rookie Carsen Edwards, who hit eight 3-pointers in one quarter during a preseason win over Cleveland, would be that instant scorer the Celtics have lacked since Eddie House. Unfortunately, the 5-foot-11 Edwards couldn’t consistently hit shots — 30.5 percent from the field — and was exposed on defense because of his size.

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The organization wants Edwards to gain experience and confidence in the G-League, but he is shooting 27.1 percent from the 3-point line with Maine. It would be wishful thinking to believe Edwards could come up to Boston and suddenly turn into the scorer it needs.

The bench’s issues are further exposed when other teams get easy points from their reserves. The Bucks have a veteran-laden bench with Robin Lopez, Hill, Ersan Ilyasova, and 3-point specialist Kyle Korver. The latter three are strong 3-point shooters, which allows the Milwaukee offense to open up the floor and attack the paint.

The Bucks packed the paint against the Celtics bench. There were three occasions Thursday when Brook Lopez literally stood 10 feet away from Williams, hoping he’d shoot a 3-pointer. Williams actually hit one of his four attempts, but he hasn’t shown the ability to knock down jump shots.

So teams figure, ‘Why guard him?’

Ojeleye is an improving 3-point shooter, but he averages less than one make per game.

So teams figure, ‘Why guard him?’

“We definitely need to produce on that end,” Ojeleye said, “but we don’t put pressure on ourselves. We know the kind of guys we have on this team. Everybody on this team has talent on both ends, so there’s no pressure. We just knew we need to bring our ‘A’ game and let things fall where they may.”

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But if that ‘A’ game isn’t comparable to the league’s best teams, how does that help the Celtics in the long run? Eventually Williams, Ojeleye, Green, and even Edwards will turn into capable NBA scorers, but it won’t be this year, so why not seek some veteran help?

This team has a chance to do special things, but it simply cannot rely so heavily on its five best players and hope things work out. They just won’t with that plan.


Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.