Once Gordon Hayward broke his leg five minutes into this NBA season, it was going to be an uphill climb for the Boston Celtics. The tires on the newly-formed core consisting of Hayward, Kyrie Irving and Al Horford core were still fresh, with only a few miles’ worth of wear.
Boston’s luxury sedan was going to have to spend the remainder of the season hiding under a tarp in the garage.
Danny Ainge, Brad Stevens and the Celtics were forced to roll something different out of the garage –
something that is a lot less reliable but may get the job done anyway.
Sophomore Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum were thrust into larger roles, and it worked early on. After dropping their first two games of the season, Boston won 16 straight and was looking like the early favorite in the East.
Over time, though, Boston regressed and Toronto solidified themselves as not only a contender in the East, but possibly the favorite to meet Golden State (or Houston) in the Finals.
Boston currently stands as the league’s best defense, as they have for most of the season. It is easy to see why. Stevens is a genius and has athletic, fiery players willing to defend, with Horford as the glue that holds it all together.
The offense is where the challenge lies. Boston is the league’s 16th best team in offensive efficiency, and it is hard to imagine them moving much higher before the postseason. Irving is a wizard, but behind him, there aren’t many reliable creators. They are solid at guard; Terry Rozier has emerged as a major contributor, Smart is capable of big nights and even Shane Larkin has been useful. But Rozier is just in his third year and Smart wasn’t worth an extension to the Celtics. Make of that what you will.
Brown can get buckets off of energy alone, and Tatum, at the ripe age of 20, schools weak defenders. Outperforming expectations is one thing Brown and Tatum can clearly do. But they are not going to carry a scoring load in the playoffs.
Aron Baynes, Marcus Morris and Greg Monroe are not likely to swing a playoff series, either.
Boston can defend, and that matters, both in the regular season and the playoffs. But to top the Raptors’ balanced attack, and even LeBron James’ faulty Cavaliers, Boston is going to need more punch offensively from players who aren’t capable of providing it on a consistent basis.
And now, 15 games away from the postseason, injuries are spreading Boston even thinner.
A day after dropping a home game to the emerging Indiana Pacers, Boston lost surprisingly helpful rookie big man Daniel Theis for the rest of the year and Smart indefinitely. Brown is already out while in the league’s concussion protocol, and Irving is also set to miss a few games due to left knee soreness.
Aside from Theis, these injuries may not have an impact on the playoffs. The one worry, however, is that Irving’s knee soreness continues to linger. It has bothered him since a surgery in 2015 and has flared back up in recent weeks.
Maybe sitting out for a week calms it down for the rest of the season…or maybe it doesn’t.
These injuries in the regular season may not affect the bottom line, but even at full strength – and by that, I mean without only Hayward and Theis – the car Boston is driving may not get them to their desired destination.