Kyrie Irving's absence provides opening for Boston Celtics' foes in Eastern Conference playoffs

Some lower-seeded teams may be more open to facing Boston in first round

CHICAGO — That thud you may have heard Thursday afternoon was the dreary injury news dropping about Boston’s Kyrie Irving, and how the latest surgery on his left knee will preclude him from participating in the 2018 NBA playoffs.

The ruckus that immediately followed was the sound of Celtics fans’ jaws and hearts dropping, quickly drowned out by teams tripping over themselves to snag the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.

Finishing seventh would set up a first-round series against Boston’s badly crippled roster, based on the Celtics essentially being locked into the No. 2 spot with only a handful of regular season games remaining. That should have Miami (43-36), Milwaukee (42-36) and Washington (42-36), currently sixth, seventh and eighth, scoreboard-watching and angling in what’s left of their schedules to set up the preferred matchup.

Remember, it’s not just Irving without whom the Celtics must forge ahead. Guard Marcus Smart last played on March 11, same date as Irving, and has been on a six-to-eight-week recovering timeline since undergoing surgery on a torn tendon in his right thumb. And of course, All Star free-agent acquisition Gordon Hayward has been out all year since that gruesome left leg injury he suffered in the first five minutes of the season opener.

The Heat, Bucks and Wizards collectively have gone 6-4 against Boston (with one meeting left at Washington Tuesday), so the prospect of taking four out of seven against a Celtics squad further weakened by injuries has obvious appeal.

* Blogtable: Who becomes Boston’s go-to guy now?

That’s the short-term outlook for one of the constituents in this latest gloom-and-doom NBA injury story. Until now, most of the recent headline-grabbers – Joel Embiid’s orbital fracture in Philadelphia, John Wall’s knee, Kevin Love’s hand, Jimmy Butler’s knee, Golden State’s various ailments and whatever has been going on with Kawhi Leonard – have allowed for returns in time for the postseason. This one does not, sending shivers through the league generally and the Celtics specifically.

Some might see irony in the published reports that Irving allegedly threatened Cleveland last summer, claiming he would opt for season-ending knee surgery if the Cavaliers had not traded him when he wanted out. Others might at least see some measure of justice, based on how severe Isaiah Thomas’ hip injury was found to be after Cleveland got him in the Irving trade.

But the bottom line in basketball terms is that Boston suddenly will be without the services of its most potent and creative scorer, one of the NBA’s best shot-makers and a guy who’d already made his bones in three straight trips to the Finals, particularly in Cleveland’s 2016 championship run.

* Blogtable: Can Kyrie-less Celtics get out of first round?

If that’s not necessarily a problem in the shortest term – it’s not unreasonable to think the Celtics have enough talent and know-how to survive against a lower-seeded foe in the opening round – it almost certainly will become one in the midterm and potentially even in the long term.

“We’re not giving up on this,” Danny Ainge, Celtics president of basketball operations told the Boston Herald.

But Ainge added: “I’ve been in the NBA a long time and I’ve seen some traumatic injuries for our team, but never as many to as many key players as we’ve had this year.”

The Celtics’ prospects with a thinned rotation figure to get worse as the playoffs grind on and the competition gets better. That’s really a problem if the winner of the Nos. 3-6 series is Cleveland. Sure, LeBron James might be deprived of a little extra juice in not going head-to-head, game after game, against the former sidekick who so wanted to put distance between them. But the Cavaliers happily will take that dip in individual motivation if it means avoiding Boston’s most dangerous player.

Then there’s this: the longer-term concerns for the Celtics. Irving can opt out of the final year of his contract in the summer of 2019. Boston, presumably, sees the 26-year-old, five-time All Star as a cornerstone of a title contender for years to come. And yet, by the end of next week, Irving will have missed 117 of a possible 558 regular season games, or 21 percent, over his seven NBA seasons. Plus, most of the 2015 Finals and all of the upcoming postseason.

His fragility is going to present the Celtics at least with some serious organizational risk. If the injuries continue, they could undermine Boston’s plans entirely.

One team’s ordeals are other teams’ opportunities, though. Other than some obligatory professional respect and empathy, none of the East’s other playoff teams is feeling sorry for the Celtics.

Irving’s absence already has provided a boost to Boston’s rivals and – based on Toronto’s recent play and annual deference to James – probably eased the Cavaliers’ road to a fourth consecutive Finals.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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