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Through the Wire: How Kyrie Irving’s Injury Setback Affects the Celtics

The All-Star guard’s latest knee trouble opens up new opportunities for the team’s young core, but does it close the door on Boston’s bid for the 1-seed in the East or a trip to the NBA Finals?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Kyrie Irving is expected to miss three to six weeks after undergoing a “minimally invasive procedure” on Saturday to remove a tension wire in his left knee, the Celtics announced this weekend. The wire was originally inserted during his 2015 surgery to repair a broken kneecap, per the team. The timetable places Irving’s return at some point between the start of the playoffs and the middle of the second round, which could have a significant impact on the Celtics and the rest of the Eastern Conference. Here are four thoughts on the ripple effects of Irving’s absence:

Can the Celtics Somehow Land the 1-Seed?

Boston has a six-game cushion on the third-place Cavaliers with only nine games to go, which virtually guarantees it a top-two seed in the East playoffs. The real question is whether the Celtics can catch the Raptors; Boston trails Toronto by only three games in the loss column, and the two teams will face each other twice over the remainder of the regular season.

The Raptors are slipping as of late; they’ve lost to the Thunder, Cavaliers, and Clippers and won unconvincingly against the Magic, Mavericks, and Nets. Meanwhile, the Celtics defeated the Blazers and Thunder and went toe-to-toe with the Pacers and Wizards. If the Celtics keep playing well without Irving, or anywhere close to how well they started the season after losing Gordon Hayward, it’ll be hard to make a case for someone other than Brad Stevens to win Coach of the Year. But more importantly, it will set the team up with a much more favorable spot in the playoff bracket.

The 2-seed will likely have a second-round date with LeBron James—the same LeBron James who has been dunking over fools during one of the best runs of his career to finish the season. Avoiding LeBron for as long as possible should be a priority.

Toronto has one of the league’s toughest remaining schedules, while Boston has an easier one—in addition to the two games against the Raptors, the only possible playoff teams it will face are the Jazz, Wizards, and Bucks. The Raptors should feel fairly comfortable about retaining the top seed and avoiding the LeBron side of the bracket (unless somehow Cleveland, which is just a game and a half up on Philadelphia and Indiana, drops into the 4- or 5-seed), but it’s not a certainty.

What the Celtics Will Be Missing

Irving’s basic box score numbers with the Celtics are fairly similar to last season’s with the Cavaliers, but his game has evolved under Stevens. Kyrie is finishing possessions using dribble handoffs or screens about twice as often as last season, per Synergy, while passing more frequently out of pick-and-rolls and isolations. He is still one of the game’s most lethal scorers, but now he’s a more diverse scorer, ranking in the 85th percentile or better in isolations, pick-and-rolls, handoffs, spot-ups, and cuts.

Playing down both Irving and Hayward leaves the Celtics offense without anyone who can routinely score buckets in the half court. The remaining roster will be able to scrap for wins over the final nine games, but it will be a tougher task in the playoffs, when individual possessions are more valuable and it’s harder for teams to run a set offense, like the Celtics’ motion-based system. When the game slows down, having a player who can even get a shot off against a locked-in defense becomes paramount. Those are the moments when Irving will be missed most.

If Irving’s return is closer to six weeks than three, the Celtics will have a harder time regardless of the opponent in the early rounds. The Celtics are scoring 3.8 points per 100 possessions more this season against potential playoff opponents they may see in the first or second round with Irving on the floor than they are when he’s off. If they’re without him, the Celtics will need to rely even more on their top-ranked defense. But other injuries have hurt them there, too: Their best perimeter defender, Marcus Smart, is out for six to eight weeks after undergoing surgery on his right thumb to repair a torn ligament, and their second-best big-man defender, Daniel Theis, is out for the season with a torn left meniscus.

Unless Hayward magically returns during the playoffs, all the signs are pointing to this likely not being the season Boston hangs banner no. 18.

The Jay Team Called Into Action

There are still plenty of positives if the Celtics get bounced early, starting with the unique opportunity that Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum will have to help lead a playoff team. The 21-year-old and 20-year-old will, at the least, get more opportunities in Irving’s absence. Tatum attempts 3.5 more shots per 36 minutes in games where Irving doesn’t play, while Brown tries 2.6 more. The duo also receives more playmaking opportunities, as they see a combined 2.5 more assists per 36 minutes. Stevens will feed them both more ballhandling duties, and they’ll be leaned on to score in end-of-clock situations.

Brown has made considerable progress this season as a scorer, hitting 37.2 percent of his 3s, but the largest development has surprisingly come off the dribble. Brown was disastrous shooting off the bounce as a rookie, hitting only 19 of 72 attempts, per Second Spectrum. But this season he’s drained 42.4 percent of his 59 pull-up 2s, and 43.5 percent of his 23 pull-up 3s. It’s a small sample size, but Brown looks more comfortable going from his dribble into his shot. Without Irving, perhaps Brown will be leaned on more as a scorer and get reps against tougher defenders.

The role of Tatum, a better scorer and playmaker in the half court than Brown, will be particularly intriguing. With both Irving and Brown (concussion) sidelined in Boston’s win over the Thunder last week, a lot of the Celtics offense was run through Tatum to finish the game. That could give us an idea of what’s to come.

The Celtics ran handoffs and pick-and-rolls through Tatum, and called two plays coming out of timeouts for him in the closing moments. On the first, Tatum drove by Steven Adams and into the paint for an athletic layup. On the second, Tatum penetrated the paint and threw an accurate kick-out pass to Marcus Morris, who hit the game-winning 3. It was one of those games where you forget for a moment that you’re watching a rookie and not a multitime All-Star.

Tatum is for real, but now defenses will focus more of their attention on him. He’s sinking 47.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, but he’s still not comfortable on pull-ups (28.3 percent), and he tends to dribble into the midrange. It might take another offseason of extending his range to improve, but it wouldn’t hurt to get reps in the clutch now. How he handles it all will have a significant impact on the Celtics’ current situation and their future.

Terry Rozier Has a Chance to Get Paid

Perhaps the player with the most to gain during Irving’s absence is point guard Terry Rozier, who has made a mini-leap during his third NBA season. Rozier has scored over 30 points twice this season (granted, it was against the Hawks and the Kings), and continues to improve his shot after showing steady progress over his first two seasons. Rozier is hitting 42.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, per Second Spectrum, which includes a ton of attempts after racing through screens.

Rozier spent the offseason working on his scoring, and it shows. He has good footwork running off screens and uses his speed and wiggle to get himself open. We’re going to see more of it during Irving’s absence, as well as his improved pick-and-roll playmaking. After playing a more spartan brand of basketball at Louisville, Rozier can now change gears with the ball to probe the defense and has become a more accurate passer.

The Celtics need Rozier to produce—and so does Rozier. The guard will be eligible for a rookie-scale extension this offseason before he becomes a restricted free agent in 2019, and teams won’t forget if he flourishes or flops now. Rozier is already an energetic, tone-setting defender who rebounds like a forward. At just 24 years old, there’s still time for him to make even more progress as a passer and shooter. The real hurdle for him will be finishing at the rim, which was an issue in college and still is today (he’s hit only 49.7 percent of his attempts in the restricted area). But in a draft without many top point guards (aside from Trae Young and Collin Sexton) and a slim free-agent market, Rozier could end up being one of the more appealing trade options.

The Celtics could keep Rozier, but Boston’s payroll projects to be quite pricey entering the 2019-20 season, which could make it hard to pay Rozier. Not many teams have a need at point guard, nor have they shown a willingness to cough up assets for a player, but I’d at least give the Celtics a ring for Rozier.

The Bucks were high on Rozier prior to the 2015 draft and may have taken him had the Celtics not done so at no. 16, according to a league source. Yahoo Sports’ Chris Mannix also reported that, before Eric Bledsoe fell into Milwaukee’s lap in October, the new front office led by Jon Horst “eyeballed” Rozier. The Bucks’ reported interest may have changed, but Bledsoe hasn’t made the type of impact they expected, and he could be more expensive once he hits free agency during the same offseason. John Hammond, the Bucks’ general manager in 2015, now has a prominent position with the Magic, another team desperately in need of a point guard. Orlando will probably be drafting too high to take Young or Sexton, and even if it isn’t, it could make more sense to draft a player at another position and pursue Rozier.

Nonetheless, Rozier is an intriguing talent, and he has a chance to make himself a very appealing target over the stretch run.

The Celtics need Irving, but his absence will provide a chance for their younger players to develop, which could set them up for even greater success in the future.