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PORTLAND, Ore. — The Boston Celtics‘ expectations have been all over the place this season. They entered as title contenders but lost marquee free-agent signee Gordon Hayward to a season-ending ankle injury five minutes into the regular season. A subsequent 16-game winning streak and the emergence of rookie forward Jayson Tatum in Hayward’s place created new optimism, but a series of injuries has sent them crashing back to earth.
Boston two weeks ago lost guard Marcus Smart to a torn thumb tendon and big man Daniel Theis to season-ending knee surgery. Guard-forward Jaylen Brown, who suffered a concussion March 8, is expected to return to the lineup soon. But their absences pale in comparison to superstar point guard Kyrie Irving‘s.
This weekend, the Celtics received some concrete news on Irving, who has been out of the lineup since March 11 with soreness in his left knee. The team announced Saturday afternoon Irving underwent a minor procedure to remove a tension wire from his knee and would be out three to six weeks.
The Celtics knew this was coming ahead of Friday night’s 105-100 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, which kicked off a four-game road trip. They didn’t know the exact nature of Irving’s surgery, but they were aware they’d be without him for a while and that they’d be forced to do what they have all season: adapt to being shorthanded.
“We know what we have,” Al Horford said after the win over the Blazers. “But it is encouraging for our group and for us to make sure we keep working. We have to understand that when we commit on the defensive end, we’re a tough team to beat.”
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Keeping up that resilience in the regular season is a much different task, however, than competing at such a level in the playoffs, especially if Irving and Smart are still out. The given timetable essentially ruled Irving out for the rest of the regular season, which will end April 11. Depending on swelling and irritation levels, he could be out into the first round, too.
But players often push to play through injuries in the postseason that would keep them out during the year, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if Irving is back on the floor in the first round.
“He’s a competitive guy,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Friday. “He doesn’t want to miss a game. But at the end of the day, his health is the most important thing.”
Irving’s left knee problems began well before the past two weeks he’s sat out, as he fractured his kneecap in Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals when he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Since then, he’s undergone at least one follow-up surgery and reportedly threatened to have that procedure over the summer if the Cavaliers didn’t trade him. In mid-March, Celtics president Danny Ainge said in an interview with Toucher and Rich that Irving will need to undergo maintenance surgery on his knee.
The assumption was that the procedure could wait until the offseason, but Irving’s recent soreness and discomfort led him to seek a second opinion, which led to the decision to undergo surgery.
Stevens said Friday that Irving’s knee had not been an issue for most of the season.
“We wouldn’t have let him play if it was something that was bothering him that much,” Stevens said. “He was in constant communication with us and our trainers and everybody else. I’m sure there were days, but we were very alert to that.
“Kyrie’s health is most important. That is the bottom line.”
With Irving sidelined for the near future, the Celtics’ outlook is uncertain. They’re all but locked in to the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, trailing the top-seeded Toronto Raptors by 3.5 games and leading the third-place Cavs by six games.
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As it stands, the Celtics are missing their most important offensive player in Irving and their most important perimeter defender in Smart. When Irving is on the court this season, Boston scores 7.7 more points per 100 possessions than when he sits, per NBA.com. With Smart on the floor, the Celtics defense improves by 3.6 points per 100 possessions. Neither has been ruled out for the playoffs, but the absence of either will make a world of difference in a series with the Heat or Bucks. Milwaukee has the NBA’s eighth-best offense, while Miami has the No. 10-ranked defense.
The Bucks are 7-9 since the All-Star break but could prove a challenging matchup for a shorthanded team in the playoffs. Without Smart, the Celtics would need to rely on youngsters Brown and Tatum to contain Giannis Antetokounmpo, who, along with Khris Middleton and Tony Snell, also forms a solid perimeter defense unit. If Boston doesn’t have a full-strength Irving in the lineup to bring scoring and playmaking, Milwaukee could be a difficult out.
The Heat would be a more favorable opponent. They don’t have a singular offensive superstar like Antetokounmpo, and this version of Erik Spoelstra’s system is largely built on beating teams with effort and energy. That approach doesn’t translate as well in the playoffs, when every team is locked in at a level it is not in the regular season. Even if Irving remains out, a matchup with Miami would still be winnable for Boston.
Should the Celtics get out of the first round, they’d likely face LeBron James, a healthy Kevin Love and the Cavaliers. Even if Boston’s at full capacity, it would be unrealistic to expect it to win that series.
In the meantime, the absence of Irving will require players like guard Shane Larkin and rookie forwards Semi Ojeleye and Guerschon Yabusele to play more minutes. Ojeleye made a defensive impact against the Blazers in the second half, while Larkin assumed the backup point guard role once again with Terry Rozier slotted into the starting lineup.
Larkin, who has been hampered by knee troubles for much of the season but is now off his minutes restriction, has brought energy and smart playmaking to the Celtics’ closing lineups in Irving’s absence while shooting 39.1 percent from three-point range overall. His size (5’11”, 175 lbs) makes him a liability on the defensive end, but Boston likes the steadiness he has brought in recent weeks.
Yabusele is also likely to play a larger role in the coming weeks, with Stevens saying Friday morning he expects the Frenchman to be a bigger part of the rotation. While still raw offensively, Yabusele excelled Friday as a versatile defender against Portland’s smaller lineups and could be a solid multipositional defender in switch-heavy matchups during the playoffs.
At the moment, opportunities are plentiful for the Celtics’ little-used youngsters, which has led to hungry performances and a nothing-to-lose attitude.
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“We’re so young,” Larkin said Friday. “We have no egos. … A guy like Semi [on Friday] didn’t play the whole first half, comes in, plays great defense, gets some key rebounds. Just plays extremely hard. That’s what you’re going to get out of those guys because they’re so young, they want to prove themselves. We’re really fighters.”
That fighting spirit, however, will only take Boston so far against better competition in the playoffs. The Celtics’ postseason ceiling will come down to Irving’s timetable for return.