Five minutes into the NBA season, all of the Boston Celtics’ short-term plans and hopes went out the window with one awkward landing.
As Gordon Hayward’s leg broke, so did the Celtics’ chances of being a legitimate title contender. And yet they still found a way to be one of the best teams in the league – a testament to their depth, coaching and playing style.
Which is why the true kill shot to Boston’s season didn’t come until news dropped on Thursday that Kyrie Irving will require a second knee surgery which will keep him out for months.
The initial surgery, described by the team as “minimally invasive”, removed a tension wire from Irving’s left knee that was causing discomfort, but also detected a bacterial infection where two screws were inserted in 2015 to repair a fractured kneecap.
The good news is Irving is expected to make a full recovery in four to five months. The bad news? He won’t be back for the playoffs, meaning there won’t be any reinforcements on the way for a rag-tag Celtics team that has been finding ways to win with mostly role players and young guys.
It’s a depressing thought for a fanbase that was even hoping to get Hayward back at some point this season. Instead, the two stars that inspired so much excitement and hope last summer, will both be watching from afar when Boston do battle in the playoffs.
In many ways, it’s been a lost year for the franchise. But in the bigger picture, their outlook has barely changed.
Who knows what this team, which has won 53 games and boasts the league’s best defence despite dealing with injury after injury, could have done at full strength. However, it was always going to be a challenge for this year to be ‘the year’ because of their youth and lack of experience playing together.
The window to compete for a title was always expected to open in 2018-19. And assuming Hayward and Irving return to full health, nothing has changed from that standpoint.
If anything, there’s even more reason to believe the Celtics will be in a strong position beginning next season. If they can be this good without their best players, what level will they reach when they have all their talent at their disposal?
At 21 and 20, respectively, Brown and Tatum have already shown promise and improvement as players who could one day be All-Stars. With Hayward out, the responsibility that was supposed to be on the star forward’s shoulders has instead fallen to the pair of number three overall draft picks – and they have often thrived.
That experience, which will be even more valuable when earned on the playoff stage, should strengthen Boston going forward and make them an even deeper team than could have been imagined.
As far as these playoffs, the ceiling of reaching the Finals may be gone, but the floor remains as they’ll be favoured in the first round and have home court advantage in round two.
Recalibrating expectations is not what the Celtics thought they would be doing this season, but they can take solace in knowing it will only be a tough pill to swallow for the here and now.
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