The Celtics had essentially relied upon Kyrie Irving’s eventual return. An examination of his left knee after he left the March 11 loss to Indiana showed that the damage wasn’t as extensive as believed. He just needed rest.
Ten days later, there is a high level of uncertainty about when Irving will return.
He will receive a second opinion and won’t make the upcoming four-game West Coast trip as the Celtics continue to be besieged with bad injury news.
There seems to be something every day. The fact Jaylen Brown is making progress from a concussion was overshadowed because Irving’s knee isn’t improving as quickly as expected and has to consider his options after fracturing his kneecap during the 2015 NBA Finals.
The Celtics have to plan on Irving not coming back. That’s not because the knee is too damaged, but because if after 10 days he’s seeking a second opinion it may be worth having corrective surgery.
Team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge didn’t seem as concerned a week ago, saying Irving may need surgery this summer or next. It’s well known that Irving needs a procedure. The question is whether he wants to wait until June to correct the issue.
This season could still be rewarding for the Celtics. When they are playing well, Boston is the second-best team in the Eastern Conference and there is no other club besides the Toronto Raptors that the Celtics would be considerably underdogs against, and that includes the Cleveland Cavaliers.
If he’s healthy and able to play, Irving should return. But if playing this postseason poses any risk to his long-term health and his status for next season, when the Celtics will bring back a healthy Gordon Hayward — along with more-experienced Brown and Jayson Tatum — for a bona fide NBA title run.
Irving was supposed to play Sunday in New Orleans, but was ruled out early that afternoon. On Monday, he was ruled out of Tuesday’s game. He already has been ruled out of the road trip that begins Friday. There doesn’t seem to be any encouraging news on the horizon if Irving has treated and rested the knee for nearly two weeks and is still feeling discomfort.
“We’ve played a lot of games without a lot of players and it’s been a quite a challenge,” coach Brad Stevens said. “And probably no more weeks more challenging than the last couple, especially coming off how we played right out of the [All-Star] break.”
Stevens said Irving’s knee hasn’t gotten worse, “just continued soreness.”
The organization has to anticipate that surgery is a serious option, although Stevens said he hasn’t discussed that possibility with anyone. The likely possibility is that the doctor examining Irving’s knee will give the same options as the first: play through the pain and eventually have surgery or have surgery now and be completely healthy for training camp in October.
Now, if Irving is able to play through the pain, manage the discomfort, and get some more valuable time off before the playoffs, then he should come back.
“It’s not a new pain, by any means,” Stevens said. “I don’t really think about [losing him for the season] unless I’m told something like that. If he doesn’t go on the trip and we know he’s going to be gone for four games, then we have to prepare for those four games, regardless. We’ve got to make sure that we’re as prepared as we can for that.”
The day-by-day approach is smart right now. The Celtics are going to eventually get healthier. Brown sat on the sidelines for Tuesday’s game, an encouraging sign considering he’s recovering from the concussion and didn’t seem bothered by the crowd noise.
The Celtics have to manage Irving’s situation delicately. The best-case scenario is he just needs more rest, can manage the pain, and will return when the Celtics come back to TD Garden on March 31 against the Raptors.
The good news is the Celtics have essentially sealed the No. 2 seed.
Like he did Friday in Orlando, Irving sat at the end of the bench Tuesday and cheered on his teammates, walking without a limp. If the initial examination by Celtics doctors showed no further damage, there’s no reason to believe a second opinion will reveal anything different besides more peace of mind.
But the Celtics have to allow Irving to play when he’s comfortable, even if that means next season.
“We’re fortunate we created a cushion early on in the year, as far as playoffs or everything else, but this is not a situation where we’re choosing to rest someone,” Stevens said. “He’s out because he has a sore knee.”