The Celtics’ season will now be bookended by crippling injuries. After losing Gordon Hayward in its season opener, Boston learned Thursday guard Kyrie Irving will miss the entirety of the playoffs as he recovers from knee surgery, reports Adrian Wojnarowski. Irving was initially believed to be returning toward the end of the first round, but now he won't take the court until next season.
The Celtics have fought through injuries all year. Hayward, Irving and Marcus Smart are among those who've missed time. Brad Stevens has kept the team competitive regardless of the rotating starting fives, keeping the team within striking distance of the No. 1 seed in the East. But the playoffs will be a different animal. And Boston’s already suspect offense was likely dealt a fatal blow with Irving’s injury. The Celtics’ offensive efficiency with Irving off the court is 104.7, which is roughly the equivalent of the middling Detroit Pistons.
Boston lacks shot creators to make up for Irving’s offensive wizardry, and asking youngsters Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to carry the team for a series could be a tall task despite their talents. Al Horford is better suited as an initiator than scorer, and now he’ll have to deal with more defensive attention. The Celtics aren't a certainty to lose their first-round matchup, but a run to the conference finals seems highly unlikely at this point.
The early “winner” of this injury will be the East’s third seed, which is still being fought over by the Cavaliers and 76ers. If the three seed wins its first round matchup, they'll either see someone from the bottom half of the bracket or a wounded Boston team in the second round, opening up a path to the conference finals. That gives Cleveland’s and Philly’s final games some extra meaning, though it also robs us of a potential LeBron vs. Kyrie playoff battle.
The Cavs and Sixers both have four games left, each playing an East playoff team, two tankers, and then each other Friday night. That game could go a long way in determining who makes the East finals.
The short-term prognosis for the Celtics is extremely disappointing. But their long-term plans are still on track. Irving could theoretically be better after finally healing his troublesome knee. Hayward will return at full strength to form a superstar partnership. And Brown and Tatum will have gained valuable experience trying to lead the team without them.
Before the season, the Irving trade always seemed like a bit of a forward thinking move from Boston. Irving is still only 26, and him, Hayward, and the C’s young core should hopefully have many healthy years together in an uncertain Eastern Conference.
The broader trend of injuries is an unfortunate cloud over what was shaping up to be an exciting postseason. Stephen Curry, Joel Embiid, and Irving are all big names who will be robbed of a full playoff run. For all the precautions top teams are taking in resting players, we deserved to see contenders playing at their best. Perhaps this trend will force teams to be even more careful with their stars moving forward.
For now, the Celtics are probably the best team in the league at dealing with injuries. Stevens will make sure this team is a tough out no matter who they play come the start of the postseason. But whatever success Boston has in the playoffs will be overshadowed by wondering what could have been had the team played at full strength. We’ll have to wait another year to see what Danny Ainge’s best laid plans can do when competition is at its highest.