BOSTON (AP) – So much of the chatter before Boston’s first-round matchup with Milwaukee focused on who wouldn’t be on the court for the Celtics.
Injuries forced Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart to join Gordon Hayward and Daniel Theis as spectators by the end of the regular season. It seemingly left the East’s second seed vulnerable against a Bucks team boasting one of the league’s most versatile scorers in All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It took seven games, but the Celtics got just enough from the healthy players left on their roster to hold off Milwaukee with a 112-96 victory on Saturday night .
Now they’ll turn their attention to Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and another youth-led team in the Eastern Conference semifinals against Philadelphia.
“It’s something we’ve had to go through all season,” said rookie Jayson Tatum, who had 20 points on Saturday, becoming just the second rookie in Celtics’ history to score 20 in a Game 7. “Some way, somehow, we figure it out. And I think that’s what’s unique about our team.”
Tatum is just one of the young faces that remain on Boston’s bench that have grown up fast over the past three weeks. Because of it, the Celtics that have squeezed out their best basketball despite the multiple subtractions to their roster.
Terry Rozier put up career numbers after stepping into a starting role. Smart injected new life into the team over the last three games following his return to action from thumb surgery. Then there was rookie Semi Ojeleye, who made things difficult late in the series for Antetokounmpo.
And they still had at least a veteran to lean on.
Al Horford provided not only his voice, but probably his best stretch of games in a Celtics uniform over the last seven games. He matched his playoff career high with 26 points on 13 of 17 shooting in Game 7 and averaged a team-high 18.1 points and 8.7 rebounds for the series.
“It’s what I think I’ve been doing all year,” Horford said. “It’s what we’ve been doing as a group. We didn’t treat this any differently. … I felt like our guys, their poise was great. Milwaukee fought hard. They kept giving us shots, our guys stayed with it and eventually we wore them (out).”
But Boston will enter the series with the 76ers facing yet another challenge.
Jaylen Brown, who had two 30-point games in the series, left near the end of the second quarter on Saturday and sat out the entire second half with a right hamstring injury.
He said afterward that trainers believe he has a Grade 1 sprain. He was put on anti-inflammatory medication and will get an MRI on Sunday. With rest and treatment he’s optimistic that he’ll be ready to go for Game 1 against the 76ers on Monday night.
“Whatever it takes, I wouldn’t miss this series for the world,” Brown said.
Late in the fourth quarter with the Celtics leading the Bucks by 19 points, “We want Philly!” chants began to echo throughout TD Garden.
It wasn’t quite “Beat L.A.!” But it certainly had echoes of the 1982 rendition that Boston fans bellowed in the closing minutes of Boston’s Game 7 loss to Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Finals that year.
Now it’s the 76ers that stand in the way of Boston getting back to the conference finals for the second straight year.
“We’ve played them quite a bit. It’s been awhile since we played them,” Tatum said. “But they’re a big, physical team.”
GAME 7 DOMINANCE
Boston improved to 20-4 all-time in Game 7s at home. The Celtics are 23-8 in Game 7 overall.
BACK IN THE SEMIS
With the win, the Celtics have advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the 2011-2012 postseasons.
For more AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball
Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower