All Hope is Lost for Boston Without Kyrie Irving…Or Is It?
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Note: this article was originally posted on Check Down
The good news for the Celtics: Kyrie Irving’s recent surgery to remove two screws from his left knee went “exactly as planned,” according to Danny Ainge. The bad news, however, is that this procedure is yet another setback for the often-injured Irving, who has now missed 133 regular season games in his seven-year career. Unfortunately there’s no reason to think this worrisome trend won’t continue for Boston’s twenty-six year-old centerpiece, either. Irving has simply been unable to remain consistently healthy dating back to his injury-shortened stint at Duke.
Of course, many pundits also seem to think that the Celtics’ season is over due to Irving’s absence. Boston has seen its championship odds plummet, for instance, on a number of betting websites such as HR Wager. And based on their most recent loss to the lowly Atlanta Hawks, it’s somewhat understandable why the public has lost confidence in the Celtics.
I say somewhat, though, for a reason. Sure, a trip to the Finals may be off the table now for Boston, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering that both their best and their second best player (Gordon Hayward) have already combined to miss over 100 games this season. Everyone is overreacting, however, with respect to whether they can still make a deep playoff run without their leading scorer.
As I mentioned last week on Check Down Radio, the Celtics have posted a surprisingly stellar record without Irving this season. At the time of that recording, Boston was 12-4 without their go-to scorer; and even though the Celtics have lost three out of four since then, their 13-7 (.650 win%) record without Irving is still not significantly worse than their record without him (41-19, .683 win%). Plus, their resume without Irving includes two victories over the East-leading Raptors, two wins over the Trail Blazers, and victories over other playoff-bound teams like the Thunder and Jazz. It’s also worth mentioning that a handful of these thirteen victories have not only come without Irving, but without guys like Al Horford and Jaylen Brown as well.
In short, the Celtics can make due without their top players thanks to their phenomenal blend of depth and youth. Credit Brad Stevens for facilitating Boston’s success because no team in the NBA could win 54 games after losing their two best players to significant injuries. No, probably not even the Warriors, who are just 17-12 without Stephen Curry this season. That would put them on only a 48-win pace — and imagine if Curry and Kevin Durant combined to miss over 100 games!
Regardless, it’s premature to write off Boston this postseason. The general consensus in the betting market is that the Celtics now rank as the 4th best team in the East. In fact, their odds (16/1) to win the East are significantly lower than both the Raptors (3/2) and 76ers (6/1), let alone the Cavaliers, who have a better than 50% chance to make a fourth consecutive trip to the Finals.
Let’s put aside Cleveland for this upcoming discussion, though, because it’s almost a certainty that LeBron James will return to the Finals. Are the Celtics really that much worse than Toronto, even without Irving? Remember: Toronto has yet to prove it can win when it counts. And more importantly, the Raptors are just 12-11 against playoff teams over the past three months. Translation: they’re a pretender. Enjoy facing LeBron in the second round!
Then there are the “surging” 76ers. Sure, a fourteen-game winning streak looks terrific on paper (and admittedly, I was ecstatic when the Celtics went on a similar streak earlier in the year). But while Philadelphia has won eighteen of its past twenty-two games, Ben Simmons and company are just 4-3 against playoff teams over that span. In other words, the 76ers have largely been beating up on bottom feeders. Combined with their inexperience, as well as the possibility that Joel Embiid may not be back for the thick of Philadelphia’s playoff run, I certainly wouldn’t assume the 76ers would beat the Celtics should the two teams meet in a Conference Semifinal. And if Boston is ultimately able to reach the Conference Finals by first escaping a potentially difficult first round series against a team like Washington and then surprising a Philadelphia team that many pundits (most notably Stephen A. Smith) have already penciled into the Eastern Finals, man would that be an accomplishment!
Nonetheless, this relatively pressure-less playoff journey the Celtics are set to begin is far less important compared to the long-term health of Irving. Fortunately Boston is talented enough to still contend without him. But in order to first take command of the Eastern Conference and later compete with the likes of Golden State and Houston on the grand stage, the Celtics will need their best player to return fully healthy.