BOSTON — The 76ers get to rest after closing out the Miami Heat in five games, but their opponent in the Eastern Conference semifinals won’t enjoy that luxury.
The Sixers wait around as the No. 7-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and the No. 2 Boston Celtics settle a series in which the home team has held serve each game. Boston leads, three games to two, after a 92-87 win Tuesday night over the Bucks at TD Garden. Game 6 will be Thursday in Milwaukee, and if a seventh game is needed, it will be played Saturday in Boston. (If Boston wins Thursday, the Celtics will host the Sixers at 8 p.m. Saturday in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference semifinal.)
The Celtics might be the least feared No. 2 seed, and that’s because of injuries. Five-time all-star point guard Kyrie Irving is out for the playoffs because of a knee injury, and prized free agent Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending fractured left ankle in the opening game of the season. In addition, reserve forward Daniel Theis had season-ending knee surgery March 15.
Boston did receive a major lift when guard Marcus Smart returned Tuesday after being sidelined since March 11 with an injured ligament in his right thumb that required surgery. Not only does Smart give this depleted team another capable body, but he is also an exceptional defender. He provides the Celtics an element of toughness they had been missing.
Smart can’t be judged by the stat sheet, although he filled it up capably, playing nearly 25 minutes, with nine points, five rebounds and four assists. In showing some rust, he has also committed five turnovers.
Still, on a team desperate for depth, the return of the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Smart couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
“He affects the game in a lot of different ways, that toughness, that hustle, that size at point guard,” said Celtics forward Marcus Morris, the Philadelphia product from Prep Charter who is averaging 13.8 points and 5.8 rebounds this series.
Smart could sense the lift he provided the Celtics.
— Marc Narducci (@sjnard) April 25, 2018
“My teammates said to bring energy and that is what I tried to do and the guys responded well,” Smart said.
Both teams have to work hard for their points, with nether having a Ben Simmons-type point guard who can get the team consistently easy baskets.
Milwaukee, which lost by 130-95 in Philadelphia during the final regular-season game, will need more from 6-foot-11 two-time all-star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was limited to 16 points and 10 field-goal attempts. He did have 10 rebounds and nine assists.
“In regards to finding better opportunities for shots, we have to make sure he is getting the ball,” Milwaukee coach Joe Prunty said.
Boston coach Brad Stevens gave rookie Semi Ojejeye, a second-round selection from SMU, his first career start, and his job was to guard Antetokounmpo. Last year, Ojejeye was playing against the likes of Temple in the American Athletic Conference, and now he was trying to hold down one of the NBA’s best players. Ojejeye did a credible job, with plenty of help.
In addition to starting Ojejeye, Stevens moved Al Horford to center, and he responded with a 22-point, 14-rebound effort.
This has been a physical series, and neither team, after five games, has much affinity for the other.
“You get tired of each other,” Celtics guard Terry Rozier said. “Both teams don’t want to lose.”
And both teams have to exert maximum energy for at least one more game, while the Sixers sit back and watch with interest.