Three Things to Know: Kyrie Irving news blow to Celtics’ playoff chances, but at least they’re in

Dan Feldman
NBC Sports

Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Celtics star Kyrie Irving will miss 4-5 months, including the entire postseason, due to his knee injury.

Brad Stevens’ motion offense produces good shots. He goes four- and five-out to maximize spacing, and he gets his players on the same page with ball movement, player movement and screening. They all play hard.

But defenses clamp down in the playoffs, and teams must inevitably sometimes give the ball to someone who creates a shot for himself against a set defense with the shot clock running down. All the genius sets and extra effort still can’t avoid that.

That’s why Boston traded for Irving, who’s elite in those tough situations. He was supposed to help the Celtics’ regular-season success continue deep into the playoffs.

Without him, Boston fits the profile of a lower seed. Though the Celtics (53-25) will likely nab the No. 2 seed, they won’t necessarily put a better team on the floor than their first-round opponent – the Heat, Bucks or Wizards. If it weren’t for Boston’s home-court advantage, it could be a true toss-up series.

And that’s not so bad. The Celtics’ window is open for a while. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier are developing nicely. Irving and Gordon Hayward should be healthy next year. All these setbacks occurred during a season LeBron James remains elite and the Raptors are humming. This might not have been Boston’s year yet, anyway.

And at least the Celtics have already clinched a playoff spot, which is more than can be said for most of the teams in the Western Conference race.

2.) The Nuggets beat the Timberwolves and the Jazz smashed the Clippers in two huge playoff-chase matchups.

Denver point guard Jamal Murray had one of the most pivotal plays of the season with 1:46 left last night. As the shot clock neared expiration, Murray pump-faked and drew a shooting foul on Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns (26 points, 13 rebounds, four assists), Minnesota’s best player throughout the game, fouled out. Murray made both free throws to put the Nuggets up one, and without having to face Towns, they held on for a 100-96 win. That tied Denver with the Timberwolves for eighth-place.

As a bad shot looked increasingly necessary, Murray in one fell swoop got Minnesota’s best player off the floor, put the Nuggets ahead and massively increased their playoff chances.

Denver’s point guards – Murray (22 points) and Devin Harris (20 points) – came up big on a night many of their teammates couldn’t find offensive rhythm. Those two shot 14-for-27 from the field (52%) and 8-for-15 on 3-pointers (53%). Everyone else was 21-for-62 from the field (34%) and 3-for-21 on 3-pointers (14%).

Other Nuggets made up for it with high-effort plays down the stretch, and they can’t let up now. Denver has a tougher closing schedule than the Timberwolves do – including the finale at Minnesota. And Minnesota should soon get back Jimmy Butler, who was active but didn’t play last night.

Next up for the Nuggets? The Clippers, who got trounced from start to finish by Utah last night.

The Clippers are on the verge of elimination, but at least they still play a couple teams they’re trying to catch.

Here are the Western Conference playoff-race standings with each team’s remaining schedule:

4. Jazz (46-33) – at Lakers, vs. Warriors, at Trail Blazers

5. Thunder (45-34) – at Rockets, at Heat, vs. Grizzlies

5. Spurs (45-34) – vs. Trail Blazers, vs. Kings, at Pelicans

7. Pelicans (44-34) – at Suns, at Warriors, at Clippers, vs. Spurs

8. Timberwolves (44-35) – at Lakers, vs. Grizzlies, vs. Nuggets

8. Nuggets (44-35) – at Clippers, vs. Trail Blazers, at Timberwolves

9. Clippers (42-37) – vs. Nuggets, vs. Pelicans, vs. Lakers

3) The Wizards suffered a demoralizing loss to the Cavaliers. Washington fell behind by 15, made a 32-point swing in the right direction then blew a 17-point lead in the final 7:30 of the fourth quarter. The Wizards have lost three straight and seven of nine.

The latest defeat came after John Wall identified this game against Cleveland and Tuesday’s against the Celtics as especially important. Wall, via Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington:

“I want to play against the teams that are going to be in the playoffs. No offense to the teams that are not going to the playoffs,” he said. “I want to play against Cleveland and definitely against Boston because those are who we might end up seeing in the playoffs. So, leave a statement there.”

Welp.

With Irving injured, that Boston game provides less opportunity for redemption. The stakes are just so much lower.

Last night’s result might have been good for everyone involved, though. The Cavs (49-30) move one step closer to the No. 3 seed, though the bigger test will come against the 76ers (48-30) tonight. And Washington moves closer to getting the No. 7 seed, which would almost certainly mean a first-round matchup with the vulnerable Celtics.

But that won’t matter unless the Wizards play much better than they have lately.

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