The Celtics were short-staffed, but still had a chance
When the Celtics faced the Pacers on Sunday, Jaylen Brown was at home, away from the bright lights and loud noises of TD Garden as he recovers from a concussion, and Al Horford was at home resting as he recovers from an illness.
Kyrie Irving was already dressed when reporters entered the locker room after Boston’s 99-97 loss, because he had missed the second half with a sore left knee. Daniel Theis, who bumped legs with an opponent during the game, limped out of the locker room, and Marcus Smart said his jammed thumb was hurting, too.
With just 15 games left in the regular season, the Celtics are bruised and battered. And coach Brad Stevens will have to balance the desire to find a rhythm entering the playoffs with the desire to have everyone healthy while they do it.
“None of those [injuries] seem to be long-term concerns,” Stevens said, “but we’re going to make sure that obviously we’re very alert.”
Despite this string of maladies, the Celtics had an improbable chance to steal a win Sunday after pushing back from a 9-point fourth-quarter deficit. But after a wild sequence in the final seconds, Terry Rozier’s potentially game-tying 20-footer at the buzzer was short.
Afterward, though, the focus immediately shifted away from this game and onto Irving’s somewhat troublesome left knee. He underwent surgery in June of 2015 to repair a broken kneecap, and Stevens said last week that Irving has been dealing with some soreness for much of the season.
Irving began to experience some pain during the Celtics’ March 3 loss to the Rockets, and he missed the win over the Bulls two days later. He returned to face Minnesota Thursday, though, and seemed fine at the start of this game. But at halftime it was clear that he was not, and so he did not return to the court.
Irving said that typically when he has experienced this kind of knee soreness, the pain subsides after a few days. This time it has lingered a bit longer, though, so he planned to rest until it felt right, “instead of kind of hoping it gets better.”
When asked if he was concerned about the soreness, particularly this late in the year, Irving said he was not.
“Where we are in the season, I’m pretty comfortable,” he said. “I think that competitively, I think that’s more or less what I’m concerned about. When I actually do get back on the floor, I want to feel the level I expect myself to be at and I want to play at and being able to sustain it. Right now, I’m not able to.”
In January, Cleveland.com reported that Irving will eventually need minor knee surgery as a follow-up to his 2015 procedure. At the time, he mostly rebuffed that report. But Sunday he sounded less certain.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I hope not. I’ve been down that road before. I’ve had a fractured kneecap already. So I think taking games like this, being smart about it probably will put me in a better position not to be out for a long period of time. That’s the last thing I want to do.”
Brown, meanwhile, is expected to be out for at least a few more days as he recovers from the concussion he suffered when he fell after a dunk Thursday night.
With Sunday’s loss, the Celtics now trail the Eastern Conference-leading Raptors by 3½ games. Although the teams still have two games remaining against each other, Toronto is now in command of the situation. But the Celtics are in no danger of falling out of the No. 2 spot, so they do not have to worry about ceding ground as they nurse their wounds.
Despite all the absences Sunday, there were moments where it looked like the Celtics would come out on the good end of another frenetic finish. They frittered away a 10-point halftime lead after Irving left the game and trailed by 9 early in the fourth before making a run of their own.
Marcus Smart hit two 3-pointers over a 33-second span, the second banking off the glass and pulling Boston within 93-89.
With Boston trailing, 95-90, Rozier hit a 3 from the top of the key and Jayson Tatum added a pair of free throws to tie the score at 95 with 36.5 seconds left. Myles Turner scored inside with 21 seconds left to give the Pacers a 97-95 lead, and after a miss by Rozier, Victor Oladipo added a pair of free throws.
Smart then missed a 3-pointer, but it caromed out of bounds off the Pacers with 2.9 seconds left. Tatum converted a quick layup with 1.5 seconds to play, and before the ensuing inbounds pass, Oladipo hit Marcus Morris in the face, drawing an offensive foul and, somehow, giving Boston life. But Rozier’s 20-footer from the right corner at the buzzer was short, and the Pacers held on.
“Hats off to our young guys,” Stevens said. “I thought they battled. I thought they battled really hard today.”
Smart made 6 of 12 3-pointers and finished with 20 points to lead the Celtics. Irving had 7 points and 4 rebounds in 16 minutes of first-half action, and the Celtics will be cautious as they figure out when they will see him on the court with them again.