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On the surprising Celtics, the intriguing Sixers and the NBA’s most interesting coaching hire

Half of their top six players are missing, their surviving teammates should have no realistic hope of reaching the NBA Finals, and yet the Celtics have emerged as the most inspired team of the playoffs’ opening week while seizing a 2-0 lead over Milwaukee.

I was at Game 2 in Boston on Tuesday, and there was a strong feeling before the game that the Bucks would prevail. How could they not? Never mind them being the number 7 seed on the road – they had the best player in Giannis Antetokounmpo, their roster was at full health and they had already come close to winning Game 1 in overtime against the depleted Celtics. 

“From the jump I thought they played harder,” coach Joe Prunty said after his Bucks had lost 120-106 to the undermanned Celtics. “In the postseason you have to be ready to play right when you step on the floor.”

Matchups are enormously important in a seven-game series as coaches identify advantages and exploit them as often as possible. Attitude is also important, and instead of attacking the Celtics and inviting them to question whether they can survive their injuries, Milwaukee has enabled the Celtics to dream of advancing to the second round – and beyond.

The underdog has homecourt advantage. If Kyrie Irving had not undergone two recent knee surgeries that will sideline him until next season, then the Celtics would have entered this opening-round series as clear favorites based on their number 2 ranking in the East. Without him, Gordon Hayward (who was lost opening-night to a gruesome leg injury) and sixth man and defensive leader Marcus Smart (who is hoping to recover from a thumb injury in time for a potential Game 7), the Celtics were written off by everyone but the members of their own organization.

Terry Rozier, a young backup guard, has been making big plays as if trying to prove he deserves to be a star. Jaylen Brown, the 21-year-old swingman, became the youngest Celtic to score 30 points in the playoffs while exploring his athleticism to create opportunities for himself in Game 2. And Al Horford, who has endured complaints that he is passive, has been guarding multiple positions while attacking Antetokounmpo around the basket.

All three of those Celtics have in many ways limited their individual skills in order to fit in with teammates at the request of coach Brad Stevens. But now, in the absence of so much talent, Stevens has needed his team-minded Celtics to break out. All have elevated their games for the playoffs, as stars are expected to do.

Antetokounmpo (65 points, 22 rebounds and 15 assists in the first two games) and Khris Middleton (56 points) have been doing similar work for the Bucks. But Jabari Parker, who was expected to become Milwaukee’s franchise player before suffering two major knee injuries, has provided only 2 points on 7 shots while earning just 25 minutes as the series moves to Milwaukee for Game 3.

“We need everybody to guard, to defend, keep the ball in front of them,’’ Prunty said after Game 2. ``We have to be able to fight through screens, can’t get confused on screens … Jabari is one of those guys, but all our guys have to be ready to go out and defend and play at a higher level than we did tonight.”

Another kind of pressure is on the 76ers. Every young contender faces some level of torture in the NBA playoffs. Are the Sixers about to face theirs?

They’d won 17 straight games before losing Game 2 at home Monday to the Heat, who evened their series while hoping that structure and guile can overcome Philadelphia’s star power and athleticism. What Miami and Boston share is the same point of view: Both teams have nothing to lose.

Its blowout 130-103 loss in Game 1 was of psychological benefit to Miami. The opening result increased expectations that the hot Sixers – the number 3 seed in the East – should roll easily to the conference finals, even as they wait for the return of their franchise star Joel Embiid, who has been sidelined since late last month by a fractured orbital bone around his left eye.

With a fully-engaged Embiid, the 76ers would be expected to overwhelm the Heat in six games or fewer. Even if he comes back in time to make a difference in the series, how effective will he be? If Philadelphia loses Game 3 in Miami, the pressure will grow.

When Dwyane Wade is scoring efficiently, as he did for 28 points in 26 minutes off the bench in Game 2, Miami becomes a frightening opponent against a young Philadelphia team with zero playoff experience. I’m not predicting that rookie Ben Simmons and his 76ers will lose this series. But it is going to be intriguing watching them trying to win it.

In any case, this side of the bracket is looking increasingly unpredictable. Each of these four teams – including the Bucks – should be aiming far down the line for a conference final showdown with Cleveland or Toronto.

The saga of Kawhi Leonard. This is a big story in the U.S. in part because it involves the Spurs. Leonard, 26, appeared to be his generation’s version of Tim Duncan with the potential to keep San Antonio’s historic run of contention alive for another decade.

Now there is credible talk that Leonard will be leaving San Antonio after this season - whether he demands a trade or the Spurs move him preemptively - amid reports that he has had a falling out with the NBA’s winningest small-market franchise. While the Spurs were losing the first two games of their opening-round series to the defending champion Warriors by a combined 36 points, Leonard remained on the other side of the country, in New York, rehabilitating his right leg injury with his own team of trainers and advisers.

What is the cause of the apparent rift between Leonard and his team? Is it a clash of personalities? A difference of medical opinion over his injury and how it should be treated? Or is this simply a case of natural frustration by Leonard after he has missed 75 games this season?

It would be irresponsible to offer an opinion on the disagreement between the NBA’s most reliable team and its best player. I find myself thinking about Jerry Sloan, who thrived with the Utah Jazz while coaching Karl Malone and John Stockton for 15 successful years. After those stars were gone, Sloan appeared to be launching a new era with young point guard Deron Williams when their relationship failed and Sloan abruptly retired. By no means am I predicting a similar outcome in San Antonio. The only point I’m making is that Kawhi Leonard is not Tim Duncan, and the relationships between franchise and star are going to develop on their own terms, with little carryover from one generation to the next.

Coaching hires. The big one is in New York - but that’s only because the Knicks are in America’s biggest city. The truth is that the identity of the Knicks’ next coach isn’t going to make a huge difference. They’re years away from contending for the NBA Finals. 

The most interesting hire will be in Charlotte. Mitch Kupchak has taken over as president of the team, and he has asked for permission to speak with Ettore Messina, the lead assistant of the Spurs who also happened to spend the 2011-12 season with the Lakers, who at that time were being managed by Kupchak. Messina, a legendary European coach, was able to earn the respect of Kobe Bryant during his year in Los Angeles. For Kupchak and Hornets owner Michael Jordan, it will be crucial to find a coach like Messina who is able to command respect while communicating directly with the players. On top of his management style, Messina is a master strategist.