The Celtics' season restart in the Orlando Bubble Friday night couldn't have gotten off to a worse start.
Boston quickly fell behind by 15 points out of the gate against the Eastern Conference leading Milwaukee Bucks, failing to keep pace with reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (36 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists) early and often. While the Cs never quite found a way to mediate The Greek Freak, they were able to climb back into the game, making for an exciting finish in the league's second night back from a four-plus month hiatus.
Unfortunately for The Green Team, the momentum swinging play of the game involved the aforementioned Bucks' superstar when he drove to the lane in a tie game with 1:28 to play and seemingly knocked over a stationary Marcus Smart on his way to the rim.
The shot dropped, but was initially waved off for a charging call, which would have been Antetokounmpo's sixth and final foul. Upon further official review, however, the call was reversed giving Antetokounmpo a potential three-point play and allowing him to stay in the game as time winded down. He drilled the free throw, teammate Khris Middleton subsequently canned a triple on the ensuing Bucks' possession, and Milwaukee walked away with a 119-112 victory.
Despite the loss, it wasn't necessarily a discouraging performance from Boston. Not only did they climb out of the early hole against perhaps the NBA's best team, but they had their chances at stealing a win down the stretch thanks to some stellar play from Smart and Gordon Hayward.
Smart was everywhere in the setback, playing 32 minutes off the bench and contributing 23 points (7-for-11, 3-for-6 from deep), four rebounds, a steal and some overall tenacious defense. The latter part of his performance shouldn't come as much of a surprise; Smart is one of the top defensive guards in all of basketball, and doesn't shy away against guys even as big and strong as Antetokounmpo.
But the offense was the kicker. Smart was shooting the ball with confidence in his first live appearance in months, finding the open seams and streaking to the hoop with a purpose to boot.
Meanwhile, Hayward looked locked in after the halftime break. For a guy that's battled injuries over the past few years and was questioned for his durability, he played a team-high 34 minutes and never really look winded or hobbled. The 30-year-old forward dropped in 17 points (it should've been more but a number of his jumpers went in-and-out in crunch time), to go with nine rebounds, six assists and a block. If the Celtics are going to make a realistic push at an 18th championship this winter, they'll need both Smart and Hayward to continue to trend in the right direction.
Unfortunately with some stellar play came some not-so-impressive play from the C's other big name guys. Jayson Tatum shot just 2-for-18 from the field including 0-for-4 from deep and finished with a paltry five points. He never really found a rhythm, something Celtics fans hadn't been accustomed to seeing earlier this year.
Jaylen Brown did his part with 22 points, but joined the rest of the Celtics starting lineup on the negative side of the plus/minus factor, coming in at a -7 for the game. Kemba Walker (16 points) played well when he was out there, but a minutes restriction due to his ongoing knee issues kept him out of action for most of the second half.
And then there was the bench. Brad Wanamaker was steady if not stellar in 26 minutes of backcourt action, finishing with 14 key points, six rebounds and a pair of steals. Wanamaker always seems to play well when his number is called for increased court time, and his encouraging restart debut is a good sign should the Cs suffer any more injuries in their starting lineup.
Boston head coach Brad Stevens opted for a 10 man rotation (Robert Williams, Carsen Edwards and Romeo Langford were the only ones to not enter the game), but that will likely be trimmed down to eight come playoff time.
If nothing at all, Friday's opening game in Orlando should tell Celtics fans that this team still belongs in the upper echelon of the NBA's powers and could very will be right there with the Bucks, Lakers and Clippers of the world when it's all said and done.
Nick Giannino can be reached at NGiannino@SalemNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickGiannino_SN.