Pressure Keeps Building for Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics as Injuries Pile Up

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 13, 2018

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 23:  Marcus Smart #36 of the Boston Celtics celebrates his three pointer with Kyrie Irving #11 against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at Staples Center on January 23, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has carefully crafted a laudable jigsaw puzzle throughout the 2017-18 NBA season. He's cautiously realigned different pieces, molding players across the roster into a cohesive product, but injuries keep removing important items from the equation.

Now, the signal-caller is forced to shuffle everything up and try his hand once more.

Kyrie Irving, who has been the team's unquestioned linchpin during his first season in Boston, is "shutting it down for a brief but indefinite period of time to rest his sore left knee," Jared Weiss reported for USA Today's Celtics Wire. Jaylen Brown, per Celtics beat writer Scott Souza, will probably miss a week of action as he deals with concussion symptoms in the wake of a terrifying fall that featured the appearance of a (fortunately unused) stretcher.

Then came a pair of devastating blows on Monday morning.

As reported by Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania, Daniel Theis will undergo season-ending surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. Meanwhile, ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski revealed Marcus Smart is dealing with a right thumb injury currently viewed as a sprain and isn't yet sure if he can play through it. It could also be a full-fledged tear, per Charania. On top of that, Al Horford is sick, while reserve guard Shane Larkin is dealing with minutes restrictions:

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Oh, and Gordon Hayward still isn't likely to play again in 2017-18. The small forward himself won't rule out a return after the brutal leg injury suffered in the first game of the year, but Stevens, per ESPN.com's Chris Forsberg, has taken a more definitive stance: "He's not playing this year. I don't know what else to say."

Boston remains near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, trailing the Toronto Raptors by 3.5 games but sitting seven contests clear of the Indiana Pacers and the rest of the challengers in the league's weaker half. It still boasts the No. 4 net rating, bolstered by unrelenting excellence on the preventing end of the floor.

But these injuries are piling up quickly.

     

What's Being Lost?

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 26: Marc Gasol #33 of the Memphis Grizzlies handles the ball against Daniel Theis #27 of the Boston Celtics during the game between the two teams on February 26, 2018 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User exp
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

For this breakdown to work, we have to make a number of underlying assumptions.

First, let's count on Irving returning to full strength and picking up where he left off as a dynamic scoring presence capable of carrying the offense on any given night. Wojnarowski is already reporting that his injury isn't viewed as particularly serious, which offers hope he could be back in the thick of the action in the near future:

Brown falls into the same category. The breakout swingman is dealing with concussion symptoms that could have lingering effects, but he'll likely benefit from the franchise's ability to exhibit patience with its key players. Given the stranglehold on a top-two spot, the Celtics have no reason to prioritize his return over long-term health and effectiveness during the postseason.

On the flip side, we're ruling Hayward out entirely. Maybe he'll shock us all, but asking him to bounce back from a dislocated left ankle and fractured tibia before season's end isn't a particularly fair or realistic request. Wade Wilson-style healing powers would imbue Boston with the upside necessary to become true title contenders, but it's also been establishing rotations and schemes that don't rely on his well-rounded abilities.

That leaves Smart and Theis, who are big enough losses on their own. Just take a gander at this TPA breakdown from NBA Math, and you can see that both men have served as impact pieces for the C's:

Theis doesn't draw nearly as many headlines as fellow rookie Jayson Tatum, but he's quietly emerged as a key cog in Stevens' rotations with his tough-nosed defense and efficient play. Though he may not yet demonstrate consistent three-point range out of the frontcourt, his nose for rebounding and ability to lock down against a wide variety of players has helped the Celtics remain a point-preventing machine whenever he's replacing Defensive Player of the Year candidate Al Horford.

And speaking of defense, Smart's loss might be felt even more.

Not only has he served as a replacement ball-handler when Irving needs a breather, but he's been on the floor for plenty of big minutes because of his physicality and instincts as a stopper. Remember the time he frustrated James Harden into a pair of fouls down the stretch of a tight fourth-quarter battle with the Houston Rockets?

According to PBPStats.com, Boston has allowed 107.6 points per 100 possessions when both injured players are riding the pine in 2017-18. That would take the team down from its lofty perch atop the defensive rating leaderboard (101.4), dropping it to No. 21, where it would sit sandwiched between the Memphis Grizzlies and Atlanta Hawks. Worse still, the C's have put together a 112.8 defensive rating when Theis, Smart and Brown are all out of action.

Teams are capable of overcoming mediocre defenses in many situations, but these Celtics haven't seemed built to do so thus far. They've been a lackluster bunch of scorers all season long (aside from Irving), and their entire identity is wrapped up in the ability to frustrate the opposition into low point totals.

Naturally, that means someone has to step up. Or, in this case, multiple people do.

     

Who Can Pick Up the Slack?

BOSTON, MA - MARCH 11:  Terry Rozier #12 and Marcus Smart #36 of the Boston Celtics react after a three-point shot during a game against the Indiana Pacers at TD Garden on March 11, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Smart and Theis have started a combined 14 games this season, which ostensibly makes replacing them a bit easier. Stevens doesn't have to reshuffle the whole lineup and find a new quintet to throw out for the opening tip, so much as hand extra minutes to other key reserves who can pick up the proverbial slack.

And fortunately for Boston, it has access to players who are capable of handling more minutes at the necessary positions.

Though Abdel Nader and Jabari Bird will need to shoulder a bit more responsibility because of Smart's time at shooting guard (72 percent of his minutes, per Cleaning the Glass), Terry Rozier should be the primary beneficiary of his vacated spot. The 6'2" point guard will be outsized by many bigger backcourt counterparts, but he has the athleticism and physicality necessary to replicate some of what was lost with Smart's finger injury.

Though this won't be possible until Irving is back in working order, Stevens will also have the freedom to experiment with a dual-point guard lineup. The two leading 1-guards have already logged 535 minutes together this season, and the results have been largely positive: a 1.3 net rating that stems from sterling offensive ability. If they can work cohesively on defense—admittedly a tough task, given the inherent size deficit—they'll become even deadlier.

DETROIT, MI - FEBRUARY 23: Semi Ojeleye #37 of the Boston Celtics looks to the sidelines during the third quarter of the game against the Detroit Pistons at Little Caesars Arena on February 23, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. Boston defeated Detroit 110-98. NO
Leon Halip/Getty Images

And if that doesn't work, Marcus Morris will be in line for more responsibilities as a wing, while Semi Ojeleye will need to start playing more than 13.8 minutes per game.

The 23-year-old rookie has already held up nicely on defense, and downsizing to the 2 or working in bigger lineups could be the key for him to log more run. As Greg Cassoli wrote for CelticsBlog earlier in the season, "Ojeleye has continued to demonstrate an impressive blend of strength and quickness, that has helped him consistently deter would be drivers from turning the corner around him, and allowed him to toggle between forward positions."

Boston has a wide range of options while looking to replace Smart (and potentially Brown), running the gamut from inexperienced upside (Ojeleye) to undersized choices (Rozier) to veterans with well-rounded games (Morris). Fortunately, the selection is easier at the bigger spot in the lineup.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - MARCH 08: Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves defends against Greg Monroe #55 of the Boston Celtics during the game on March 8, 2018 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledg
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When the C's acquired Greg Monroe midway through the season, they surely didn't expect the former Milwaukee Buck Phoenix Sun to become such a crucial member of the rotation. Nonetheless, here he is, ready to assume a consequential role and form a big-man trio with Horford and defensive stalwart Aron Baynes.

Monroe's presence changes the complexion of the Celtics' efforts, forcing them to focus more on the offensive end while accounting for his slow-footed play when attempting to stall foes' efforts. But his touch and technique from the blocks do give Boston yet another offensive weapon—one who can, at times, make Irving's life a bit easier.

And what a luxury that is. Usually, losing a key reserve forces a team into a bit of a bind, but the Celtics are stocked and ready for this occasion. Changing a focus is a far superior alternative to drastically reducing the quality of play.

     

Time for Even More Kyrie?

BOSTON, MA - MARCH 11:  Kyrie Irving #11 of the Boston Celtics gestures during a game against the Indiana Pacers at TD Garden on March 11, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or usin
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Even if these replacements all work swimmingly—and again, we're assuming the worst for Smart and counting on his absence running deep into the playoffs given the amount of time it takes a torn tendon in a shooting hand to heal—the Celtics will be a fundamentally different team. They've been able to win with all-around defensive excellence throughout the season, getting suffocating efforts out of both their starters and reserves.

But if that changes, the pressure is on the offense.

And it will change. Even if Monroe figures out how to maximize his defense while Rozier, Morris and Ojeleye combine to prevent a drop-off on the wings, Boston will be forced to do a bit more on the scoring side. And that means more from Irving.

Perhaps it's not fair to expect so much from a player who's still in his first season leading the charge as the unquestioned alpha dog on a legitimate contender, especially when that contender is dealing with an increasing number of injury-mandated cracks in the seams. But that doesn't change reality for the Duke product, whose crafty and creative ball-handling, mixed with his high-scoring proclivities, has granted him star status and worldwide recognition.

And fortunately, we've seen him take on more postseason responsibilities before:

  • 2015-16: usage rate of 29.5 percent in the regular season; 30.4 percent in the playoffs
  • 2016-17: usage rate of 30.8 percent in the regular season; 31.1 percent in the playoffs
  • 2017-18: usage rate of 31.0 percent in the regular season; ??.? percent in the playoffs

The uptick might need to be sharper this season, but Irving is talented enough offensively that he should be capable of handling such responsibilities—assuming full health from his troublesome knee.

And just imagine the show we might all get to witness, one replete with ball-handling wizardry and plenty of defenders on skates watching with broken ankles as the speedy point guard dashes past them and into an open portion of the half-court set.

As the leader of this team, Irving's job just got a lot harder. He'll have to do more on offense to account for his fallen comrades. He'll have to work on incorporating new pieces as Stevens messes around with different lineup combinations and attempts to insert fringe rotation members into the heart of the proceedings. He'll have to deal with the same level of expectations that, regardless of injury woes, will inevitably accompany a top-two seed led by an unabashed superstar.

But the show he's capable of putting on might just be worth it.

     

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com and are current heading into games on March 12.