The Celtics walked away, rather limped away, from their 99-97 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Sunday feeling positive about their effort. Effort and execution are hardly the issues with 15 games left in the season.
Besieged by health issues since five minutes into the season, the Celtics now have to manage the knee problem of point guard Kyrie Irving, who missed the second half as his team promptly coughed up a 10-point lead and was chasing the rest of the way.
Irving missed Monday’s win over the Chicago Bulls with knee issues and returned for Thursday’s win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. With two days of rest and a light practice Saturday, Irving appeared to be ready for his customary 33 minutes against Indiana.
The soreness is forcing him to sit and he was in discomfort after a rather uninspiring 7-point first half. Without Jaylen Brown (concussion) and Al Horford (sickness), the Celtics played the second half with one starter from opening night, Aron Baynes.
They tried. They played hard in the second half, scraped their way to being one made shot from sending the game to overtime.
The focus of the Celtics’ season then shifted to making it to the playoffs in one piece. Boston is now 3½ games back of Toronto with 15 to play and two matchups left with the Raptors. That’s enough time to make a push for the No. 1 seed, but the Raptors are playing so well and their remaining schedule is far from difficult (Brooklyn twice, Dallas, Orlando twice, Detroit) that it’s time to give Irving an extended break.
Health is the top priority, especially when the playoff seedings are beginning to cement. The Celtics finished Sunday’s game seven games ahead of the Pacers and Cavaliers. It’s time to bet on depth and start the process of resting main players.
“It’s been aching a little bit so I’m just going to do what’s necessary to get back to where I need to be to feel comfortable,” Irving said. “I’m not concerned. Where we are in the season, I’m pretty comfortable. Competitively that’s what I am more or less concerned about, what I actually do to get back on the floor and how good I want to feel.”
Brown is going to be out at least another few days with a concussion sustained Thursday in Minnesota. Horford may return Wednesday against the Wizards. Marcus Smart sustained a strained right thumb chasing a loose ball Sunday. The Celtics are battered.
But they built enough equity with their 16-game winning streak and 34-10 start to begin to think ahead for the postseason. They are going to eventually have to play the Cavaliers or Raptors or Wizards or Pacers. Trying to win as many games to get a nice record won’t mean anything if they are not healthy.
“That is going to be a priority anyway,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of the team’s health. “At the end of the day, that’s where we want to be. We’ve got to do a great job of staying in the moment and talking about the next game. The reality is we still have 15 games left. We still have one-sixth of our season left. We do need to be healthy, there’s no question about it.
“Again, it was the reason why Kyrie didn’t come back in the game, because we didn’t want him to push it. We need to get those other guys back as soon as possible.”
With Terry Rozier and Smart playing well, it’s an optimal time to rest Irving. He admitted the knee has bothered him for more than a week, the same knee that he had surgically repaired after a broken kneecap took him out of the 2015 NBA Finals.
“Yeah I think that would probably be the best thing,” Irving said of some rest. “Instead of kind of hoping it gets better over two or three days. It’s aching a little, but more than I want it to right now.”
The Celtics play just four games over the next 11 days — Washington, Orlando, New Orleans, and Oklahoma City — before embarking on a four-game West Coast road trip beginning March 23 in Portland. The astute move would be to sit Irving for the next four games, banking on talent to split those four games and then have Irving for that road trip.
“I think we’ve shown it, night in and night out, the next-man-up mentality,” said Irving, who has sung the praises of Rozier for months. “We’ll just try to do everything possible to put ourselves in the best position to win. Guys are real competitive and will do anything to be a ‘W’ in the column.”
So it sounds as if Irving is good with taking a break, allowing the knee to heal and then preparing to assume his role as Playoff Kyrie in about a month. These Celtics hate to lose. They hate playing shorthanded, but it’s time to prepare for a potentially glorious future. The Celtics have grown beyond the point of fighting and scratching for playoff seeding, especially when they are seven games up with 15 to play.
They should trust their talent and depth, let Irving sit for a few games and then hit the West Coast ready to seize momentum and confidence for the playoffs.