By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Shortly after the tears subside and the incessant cursing ceases, Celtics fans will start to wonder just how far their team can go in the upcoming playoffs.
What was once a promising postseason outlook is now dark and grim, following news that Kyrie Irving will undergo another procedure on his left knee and miss the playoffs. The next time we see the All-Star point guard lace up his sneakers will be when he’s old and gray (thankfully, that will be old and gray makeup on the big screen when his Uncle Drew movie premiers in June). The Celtics have lost their leading scorer, and their best bet to return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.
The hope is that in shutting Irving down now, and removing the two screws inserted into his left knee following a gruesome injury during the 2015 NBA Finals, he’ll be 100 percent and ready to go for next season. By then, Gordon Hayward should also be ready to go and 100 percent for Boston. The Irving news is another kick in a sensitive area in a season that’s been full of them, but if it means a healthy Irving for the 2018-19 season, then there’s no arguing that it’s the right move.
But that doesn’t help the Celtics’ cause for this postseason, which is set to tip off in just nine days. Boston will take the floor against the Washington Wizards, Milwaukee Bucks or Miami Heat without their 24.4-point-per-night guard, whose wizardry with the basketball made their offense go. When Irving underwent a procedure last month, the hope was Brad Stevens and the remaining healthy Celtics could weather the storm against the Eastern Conference’s 7-seed and then welcome Irving back with open arms in the second round. Maybe Marcus Smart would return as well, and Boston would again have a punchers-chance against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors for a trip to the Finals.
With Terry Rozier serving as a Kyrie Lite as of late, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum playing like veterans and not 20-somethings throughout the year, and Mook Morris beating the backside of all who get in his way (refs included), the Celtics should still advance out of the first round. A series against either of those previously mentioned foes wouldn’t be easy, and it would likely come down to a deciding seventh game on the TD Garden floor. Still, the Celtics should come out victorious.
After that, it becomes a whole lot murkier for Stevens and company. They’ll certainly put up a fight for however long the season continues, but that fight probably won’t be enough.
The Cavaliers would likely await in the second round, and while Cleveland has had extended stretches of uninspiring basketball throughout the season, there is still a gentleman that goes by LeBron on their roster. He tends to turn things up to 11 in the playoffs, and there’s no reason to doubt he’ll do that again this season. The Cavaliers have pantsed the Celtics in two of the last three playoffs, though they also had a guy named Irving on their roster as they racked up that 8-1 postseason record against Boston. If Smart can return and Stevens can conjure up some magic like never before, the Celtics have a chance. It’s not a great chance, and it’s one that would require some role players playing at an other worldy level, but it’s a chance.
That luck would likely run out against the Raptors, assuming their postseason hiccups go extinct this summer. The Celtics had one of their best wins of the season over Toronto last weekend with Rozier leading the way, but that’s a lot to ask for over a seven-game series. Making it to the Eastern Conference Finals without Irving would be an incredible accomplishment in itself, but it would probably be the end of the road for the Celtics.
Even before it started, it’s been an incredibly trying year for the Celtics. Fans had to say goodbye to last postseason’s hero in Isaiah Thomas, though the fact he helped the C’s land Irving made that a brief mourning period. The sky was the limit after Irving was added to Hayward in the most exciting offseasons for the franchise since Kevin Garnett walked through the doors on Causeway Street. A trip to the NBA Finals wasn’t just some wild fantasy by green teamers that talk radio hosts would make fun of. There was a real chance the Celtics could be squaring off against the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets come June.
Those chances took a hit when Hayward went down five minutes into the season, but the team persisted. They were the best team in the East for much of the season, touting the best defense in the NBA, keeping those chances alive for seven wild months.
Now that Irving has joined Hayward on the shelf, the dream of mid-June basketball in Boston is essentially is gone. Celtics doubters have been proven wrong throughout the season, even in the most unlikely situations. The team has pulled off some amazing comebacks against unheard of odds against the league’s best teams, and they did it no matter where they played. They’ve proven to be a resilient bunch that refuses to lose. That attitude won’t change, even with Irving done. But the circumstances are just too great for the Celtics to overcome. Without their leader on the floor when it matters most, matching last season’s trip to the East Finals is going to be an incredibly difficult undertaking.
It’s disappointing that Boston’s admirable and astonishing run through some ridiculous adversity is going to come an end sooner than anyone had hoped, but they’ve fought through just about everything that could have been thrown at them. That should only make them stronger when they return to the floor — hopefully all of them — next season.