It’s a reach to expect Boston to make it to the conference finals, but not impossible
By Benjamin Weinberg
This NBA season has been full of injuries across the league and the Boston Celtics are no exception. How could we forget Gordon Hayward’s gruesome injury during the first regular game of the 2017-2018 regular season? In many ways, that game foreshadowed a season full of injuries for the stars of the NBA. Most recently, the Celtics announced that point guard Kyrie Irving will miss the remainder of the NBA season, including the postseason. Irving finds himself among the likes of Kawhi Leonard, DeMarcus Cousins, Kristaps Porzingis, and Mike Conley.
The news that Irving will not return until next year came as major blow to the Celtics at the wrong time. Irving was leading the Celtics, averaging 24.4 ppg, which was 2.4 points above his career average. Irving was also leading the team in assists with 5.1 per game and 1.1 steals per game.
The Celtics by no means are eliminated from the finals conversation. They have played brilliant team basketball all season, but they have faced adversity recently. While the Celtics have hit a wall as of late, many teams had to survive without their star players. However, it is no secret that the Boston Celtics will have to face a major test without Irving, the best player in Boston. He is not only is as much of an offensive threat as anyone else in this league, but he also has major playoff experience, including an NBA championship. He has already proved that he is ready, willing, and able to take the big shots in the biggest moments. He has already been to three NBA finals.
Celtics fans, when they find out Kyrie Irving is out for the regular season AND playoffs: pic.twitter.com/I60JSBgCT7
— NOTSportsCenter (@NOTSportsCenter) April 5, 2018
The Celtics will have to rely on the veteran experience of Al Horford. Horford is averaging 12.9 points per game this season and 13.8 points over the last 10 games. The Celtics will need Horford to remain hot heading into the postseason. The Celtics are an extremely young team and first-round pick Jayson Tatum will have a huge load to carry. Tatum is currently averaging a whopping 13.9 points in his rookie season. In addition, Jaylen Brown has been dominant this season and will be an important piece for the Celtics in the postseason. Brown 21, and Tatum 20, are extremely young, but both are having phenomenal seasons. The two are not used to playoff atmospheres, but it should be interesting to see how they match up with veterans in the playoffs.
The absence of Irving will most likely cause struggles for the Celtics at the point guard position. Terry Rozier has been playing well and Shane Larkin is an option, but Marcus Smart will be re-evaluated next week for a thumb injury. Facing the likes of Kyle Lowry, John Wall, and Ben Simmons would be a significant challenge for this group of Celtics guards.
Brad Stevens has proved himself to be an excellent coach. In his fourth season as a head coach, he led the Celtics to the number one seed with a 52-39 record in 2017. The Celtics then lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals. So the question remains: Can the Celtics return to the Eastern Conference finals and make a run to the championship without Kyrie?
Well, of course it’s possible. This is playoff basketball and everyone will be showing up and playing with something to prove. However, the fact remains that LeBron James has been to seven straight finals on two different teams. This is obviously an extremely impressive feat and in his 15th season, King James does not seem to be slowing down at all. In fact, it seems the opposite is happening. James may be playing the best basketball of his life. This is an extremely scary thought for the Celtics and for the entire Eastern Conference. In order to make it to the finals, one team will have to upset a favorite led by LeBron and Kevin Love. They are the ballclub with more championship experience than any other Eastern Conference team.
The young Celtics may face problems if they end up matching up with the Toronto Raptors, who are led by veteran all-star guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The Raptors are number one in the East and have been so consistent the past few seasons. However, they have not found a way past the Eastern Conference finals. Another team the Celtics may have to fear is the Philadelphia 76ers, who are entering the playoffs for the first time since 2011. The Sixers have been on a tear lately, led by Ben Simmons, who is looking like the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, while Joel Embiid has been recovering from a face contusion after an accidental collision with teammate Markelle Fultz. Embiid is about as dominant as big men come and has been a huge player for the Sixers this season.
The Celtics can beat these teams and advance to the Eastern Conference finals, but it will require everyone performing at a high playoff level and postseason intensity that many of these players just haven’t experienced yet. The young core of Tatum and Brown will need to come up big on both ends and Horford will have to help get the younger guys ready and keep up his efficiency on the offensive end. Stevens has been here before.
The Celtics lead the league with 17 total NBA championships and Danny Ainge, the Celtics GM, will not stop making adjustments to the roster until that happens. The Celtics are a franchise that expects success and if a player is not getting it done, then he is out. So some may be playing for jobs in addition to hopes of advancing. The odds are obviously against Boston even making it to the conference finals, but they could surprise if Horford leads the charge and their young players rise up. Stevens’ experience does give them additional hope for making a significant dent in the playoff picture.