The Cavs and Celtics are tied at two games apiece, and every narrative that emerged a week ago has been turned on its head in the days since. LeBron James spent games three and four bullying the Celtics all over the floor. The Cavs role players have come alive. Tristan Thompson is getting the better of Al Horford on a regular basis, and Cleveland is once again the favorite to make the NBA Finals. Of course, Cleveland's aging supporting cast will still have more to prove in Boston, Boston's young players should rebound after two frustrating losses, and the Celtics have been impossible to beat at home thus far in these playoffs.
There a dozen different x-factors in play for the next two or three games. The next week should be great. But in the middle of it all, I can't help it: I miss Kyrie Irving. All of this would be so much better if he were healthy.
To begin with, there are the baseline benefits to consider. Kyrie is one of the most explosive players in the league, and he's the most entertaining isolation scorer on the planet. You could add him to any playoff series in the history of the league, and he'd immediately make the whole show more fun. (Also, obviously: better press conferences.)
As for these playoffs specifically, Boston's loud thud in Cleveland came at a funny time. We'd just finished living through a week of conspiratorial Celtics questions around the NBA, many of which centered on Kyrie's future. Examples: If Boston is this good with Terry Rozier and a lineup full of elite defenders, what if there are better ways to spend the $30 million-a-year Kyrie will command when he hits free agency in 2019? With Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown eventually due for extensions, how do they pay everyone? Would Danny Ainge ever trade him? What if a player like Karl Towns becomes available?
The questions were a great way to argue and waste time, but they were always a little bit insane. Game 4 showed why. Trailing Cleveland by 15 at halftime, Boston played fairly well and cut the lead to single digits by the fourth. But when it was time to actually make shots and steal that game, the Celtics just didn't have anyone who could take over down the stretch.
Al Horford's effectiveness has been cut in half since Tristan Thompson returned to the Cavs starting lineup. Marcus Smart's shooting has hurt Boston on offense. Marcus Morris has had his moments in these playoffs, but he's still Marcus Morris. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown weren't able to exploit the weak links in Cleveland's defense. Terry Rozier struggled in his own right.
More than anything, Monday in Cleveland was a good reminder that this year, or next year, or any year, a healthy Kyrie Irving is worth every penny to a title contender. When things got tight in Game 4 and nobody was in a rhythm, Boston needed a player who could generate offense out of thin air. That's Kyrie's job. Horford can't be that player, and Gordon Hayward didn't always excel in that role for Utah. But Kyrie can do it. We've seen it. And at the highest levels of basketball, a player like that is a prerequisite to relevance.
It's possible the Celtics will have enough brilliant coaching and versatility to scheme their way around the law of superstars in this Cavs series. But even if they do, the Finals without Kyrie or Hayward will be a reality check. Boston needs more firepower to win at this level.
And that's only half of what makes Kyrie's absence so frustrating. There are also bigger questions in play here. Kyrie's value has been the source of endless debate for years now. On the one hand, he has a specific skillset that makes him as valuable as almost any player in basketball in a championship setting. But there are also times when defensive liabilities and streaky shooting leaves him looking more like Damian Lillard with a better crossover. Divorced from LeBron, it's hard to know which version to trust.
However Danny Ainge decides to manage the roster going forward, it's a safe bet that there will be a ton of talent in Boston. Likewise, Brad Stevens is such a good coach that the Celtics will probably win at least fifty games every year for the next decade. The floor will be high for the Celtics. But the ceiling will depend on Kyrie, and the regular season can only tell us so much.
The playoffs are where every weakness is exposed. We saw this last year, for instance, when Isaiah Thomas's size became a much bigger liability in the postseason than it ever was during the regular season. And the absence of last spring's liabilities is a big reason the Celtics are so much tougher than expected a year later. Removing Kyrie from the lineup has allowed Brad Stevens to roll with five players who can guard multiple positions and switch almost everything defense. Some of Boston's offensive success may have been a fluke along the way, but the defense is very real.
Inserting Kyrie back into the lineup will help eliminate droughts on offense, but it comes with questions of its own. To wit, SI's Rob Mahoney noted during Game 4: "Whenever LeBron hunts down Terry Rozier for a mismatch in this series, I can’t help but think that, in a perfect world, he would be tormenting a healthy Kyrie instead."
How would Kyrie handle that matchup? Could he at least hold his own defensively? Or would he be so explosive on offense that defensive sacrifices would be irrelevant? Because there's obviously an inverse to the matchup conversation. For every post-up LeBron might have had against Kyrie in this series, Kyrie could be just as diabolical seeking out guys like J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver. And then, if Boston were to advance, the same questions would apply in the Finals.
Even with Hayward returning alongside him next year, any hypothetical Celtics title probably requires Kyrie to be as good or better than Steph Curry or James Harden. Can he get there as the number one option across seven games? How aggressively will he be targeted on defense? How much of Boston's ball movement in these playoffs would be sacrificed when everything runs through their hero ball savant at point guard? Is Kyrie efficient enough to make the trade-off worth it against the best offenses in basketball?
I really don't know how Kyrie will respond to any of these questions. I just wish we could watch him try this week.
Cavs-Celtics is getting good now, but there are alternate versions of this series that would be iconic. In one, LeBron is punishing a healthy Kyrie in mismatches and breaking the Celtics in a legendary show of revenge. In another, Kyrie is answering LeBron shot for shot, torching the broken Cavs, and coming into his own as a superstar. In either case, we never forget what we're watching. We also learn a lot more about where things are headed for the rest of Kyrie's career.
It's OK, though. When you are very much woke, there's always next year.