The Boston Celtics have already clinched a playoff berth, and the overwhelming likelihood is that they’re going to enter the 2018 postseason as the East’s No. 2 seed. Yes, Brad Stevens’ club has two head-to-head meetings left with the first-place Toronto Raptors, but Boston heads into Monday’s play 3 1/2 games back of the also-clinched Raps; Basketball-Reference.com’s projections give Boston a scant 2.5 percent chance of toppling Toronto. And despite Sunday’s two-point loss to the Indiana Pacers at TD Garden, the C’s are still seven games up on Indy in the loss column with 15 games to go — not an insurmountable edge, but a pretty significant one with a month remaining in the regular season.
With that No. 2 spot all but assured, then, the Celtics will turn their attention over the campaign’s final weeks into how best to maximize their chances of making a deep postseason run. The top item on that list: make sure offensive engine Kyrie Irving is in full working order come mid-April. That’s why the All-Star point guard’s probably going to be taking it easy for a little bit.
Irving missed the second half of Sunday’s meeting with the Pacers, exiting at halftime due to the left knee soreness that flared up during Boston’s March 3 loss to the Houston Rockets and kept him out of last Monday’s win over the Chicago Bulls. Irving returned to the lineup with 23 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in Thursday’s victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, but he evidently felt discomfort throughout a first half that saw him score seven points with four rebounds, one assist and one steal in 16 minutes.
That led both player and coach to decide discretion was the better part of valor when talking about an ailing body part that, lest we forget, was fractured less than three years ago. From Jay King of MassLive.com:
“It’s just been aching for a little bit,” Irving said. “I just think I need to take some time.” […]
“I’m not concerned,” Irving said. “Where we are in the season, I’m pretty comfortable. I think that competitively, I think that’s what I’m more or less concerned about, just when I actually do get back on the floor I want to feel the level I expect myself to play at and I want to play at. And being able to sustain it. So right now I’m unable to do that. So I’ve just gotta deal with that.”
Added Irving: “I think (taking time off) will probably be the best thing, just instead of kind of hoping that it gets better over the two or three days which it usually does. It’s aching a little bit more than I want it to now, so I’m just going to take the necessary time.”
And from Chris Forsberg of ESPN.com:
“At halftime, he was talking about [the knee], felt some soreness in it, probably similar to the Houston game,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “He was getting it worked on after halftime. We don’t know what it is above general knee soreness, and he doesn’t seem overly concerned, big-picture, with it. But obviously it’s been giving him fits here and there for the last five to eight days or so.”
Stevens sounded open to the idea of shelving Irving until he’s more confident in the knee.
“If he doesn’t feel 100 percent, then we need to have him sit, and so I think that that is something that we’ve all talked about, and [that’s] why he didn’t come back in [against Indiana],” Stevens said.
In the short term, resting Irving could produce some pain for Stevens and company. While the Celtics have gone 5-2 in the seven games Kyrie has missed thus far this season, they’ve tended to struggle to consistently generate good looks with him out of the lineup. Boston has scored 108.7 points per 100 possessions with Irving running the show, which would rank seventh among 30 NBA teams in offensive efficiency over the course of the full season, and just 101.1 points-per-100 — which would rank dead last in the league — when Irving’s off the floor.
Making matters worse, Irving’s injury is far from the only one the Celtics are dealing with at the moment. Gordon Hayward might still be holding out of hope for a return from the fractured left leg he suffered on opening night, but he’s not going to be back any time soon. Sophomore Jaylen Brown thankfully avoided structural damage in his terrifying fall during Thursday’s win in Minnesota, but he’s not expected to be back for at least a week as he continues to work his way through the NBA’s concussion protocol. All-Star center Al Horford missed Sunday’s game against the Pacers with an illness, too; when both he and Irving sit, the Celtics’ offense produces a whopping 12.2 fewer points-per-100 than when they share the floor, according to NBAwowy.com’s lineup data. And one of Horford’s key backups, German rookie Daniel Theis, was just lost for the rest of the season with a torn meniscus in his left knee.
Danny Ainge has built a deep roster full of talented pieces capable of stepping into larger roles as needed. Marcus Smart helped filled the void of Irving’s absence on Sunday, scoring a team-high 20 points while dishing eight assists, grabbing seven rebounds and snaring four steals in 36 minutes, while reserve guard Terry Rozier added 16 points, six boards and two assists in 34 minutes off the bench in Kyrie’s stead. But you’d much rather be pleasantly surprised by production like that in spot minutes on a Sunday night in early March than depending on it in, say, a Game 5 in the second round of the playoffs.
To whatever extent parking Irving for an extended period now — perhaps, as Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe suggests, the Celtics’ imminent spread-out stretch of four games in 11 days that will feature matchups against the Washington Wizards, Orlando Magic, New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder — will increase the chances that he doesn’t miss any time come the spring, it makes all the sense in the world for Boston to proceed with caution. From Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald:
As he walked back down the hallway toward his office after his press conference, the phrase “health over seed” was spoken in his direction.
“No doubt,” Stevens said.
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