BOSTON — When the Celtics signed Gordon Hayward to a huge free-agent contract and traded for Kyrie Irving in the offseason, they created what was supposed to be Boston’s new Big Three, along with holdover Al Horford.
Hayward was lost for the season with a gruesome leg injury in the first quarter of the first game of the season. Irving was eventually lost for the year, also because of injury.
That left Horford, a big man who draws the ire of some Celtics fans because of how quietly he goes about his business.
His coach loves him. The fans want more.
On Sunday, in the series opener against the Milwaukee Bucks, the fans got more.
“It’s go time,” Horford said after the overtime he helped fuel with 24 points and 12 rebounds in 44:19 of the game’s 53:00. “This is the time where you want to play. You want to be in these games setting the tone. It all starts on the defensive end. I try to set the tone on defense and kind of go from there. I guess it’s doing whatever I can do to help us win. That’s what it’s all about.”
Horford also had four assists, three blocked shots and two steals in the win that gave the second-seeded Celtics a 1-0 series lead heading into Tuesday night’s Game 2 at TD Garden.
All this after TV analyst Charles Barkley ripped Horford’s pedestrian season totals — 14.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 32 assists, saying, “When I was averaging his numbers, they made me retire.”
But with Irving, Hayward, Marcus Smart and rookie Daniel Theis missing, Horford is more important to the offense.
“We’re going to ride Al,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “He’s been unbelievable in being a facilitator for us all year. He has his moments, because of the way we’re being defended, where he gets to be more of a featured scorer. With where we are now, he’s going to be more of a featured scorer, and facilitate, and guard (Giannis Antetokounmpo), and do everything.
“He’ll probably run our film session (on Monday).”
If Horford is nothing else, his basketball IQ is high and he does many things that don’t show up on the stat sheet. His salary dictates higher numbers, but Stevens knows what he has in this player.
The Bucks, seeded seventh, tied Sunday’s game on a miraculous 35-foot jumper by Kris Middleton at the regular buzzer, but the Celtics found a way to win the game.
“We played well and we played hard and that’s what this series is going to be — both teams fighting,” Bucks coach Joe Prunty said.
Eric Bledsoe, making his first playoff appearance since 2014 — as the Bucks look for their first series win since 2000 — was beaten by Terry Rozier for the 3-pointer with half a second left that appeared to have won the game in regulation. Bledsoe scored nine points on 4-of-12 shooting and posted four assists and five turnovers.
He was also unintentionally slighted after the game by Rozier, who scored 17 of his 23 points in the second half and the OT. The Boston guard called Bledsoe “Drew Bledsoe,” an inadvertent homage to the former New England Patriots quarterback.
And Antetokounmpo fouled out guarding Horford, who was 5 of 8 from the floor and hit 13 of his 14 free throws. Antetokounmpo felt like he failed despite 35 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and three steals.
“I’ve got to do a better job guarding Horford,” Antetokounmpo said. “He’s a really big body, he’s under control, he knows what he’s doing down there. Hopefully in Game 2, I won’t play on my heels. I’ll play more on my toes and be able to defend without fouling, too.”