Boston Celtics

If there’s a documentary filmmaker following the 2018 Boston Celtics, she just changed the working title for the fourth or fifth time in the last six months.  Now, it’s just “Screwed.”

They weathered the loss of prized free agent Gordon Hayward just five minutes into the season and ran up one of the best records in the NBA. Young players stepped forward. Role players stepped up. They’ve even gone 13-7 in games without Kyrie Irving, recently posting a six-game winning streak (overcoming the Raptors, Thunder and Trail Blazers in the process) with their star guard on the shelf after a knee procedure threatened to keep him out through the first round of the playoffs.

But last Thursday’s news that Irving had to remove screws from his surgically repaired left kneecap appears to be the final nail. Hearing the anticipated recovery time for the new procedure is 4-5 months, Celtics fans at work, sitting in their cars, and thumbing through social media collectively sighed, “on to 2019.”

Next year could be great. Hayward will be back. Irving’s second surgery in the last month may finally put his knee woes in the rearview mirror. However, there will also be a healthy amount of concern over the state of a franchise set to lavish $80 million next year on a point guard with a tricky wheel who’s missed 122 games in his seven-year NBA career, a swingman coming off a uniquely gruesome injury, and a 32-year old big man.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, the Eastern Conference hasn’t looked this wide-open in almost a decade, way back before 2010’s “The Decision,” when LeBron still toiled alongside Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, and Shaq with the Cavs. The Magic entered that particular postseason as defending conference champs by virtue of a Kevin Garnett knee injury. But a seemingly broken-down, fourth-seeded Celtics team knocked off both squads to procure a Finals rematch with the Lakers.

The show must go on for this year’s model. The mold has again been recast, with Marcus Morris (20.8 points per game), Jayson Tatum (17.2) and Terry Rozier (16.6) shouldering the offensive load in Irving’s absence. Al Horford and Jaylen Brown continue to make contributions on both ends of the floor. The supporting cast has oscillated between serviceable and non-existent, but the Eastern Conference playoff picture reveals a host of flawed teams.

Can they win a round? Do I hear two? Dare I say, three?

LOS ANGELES – Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics reacts after his double foul as he is pulled back by Marcus Smart #36 during the first half against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on January 23, 2018. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

After last Wednesday’s drubbing at the hands of the Raptors, the Celtics settled into the second seed in the East. That means they’ll face the Bucks, Wizards, or Heat in round one of the playoffs. Current odds say it’s likely to be Milwaukee.

In my opinion, Washington is the nightmare scenario. The only reason the Wizards are in this position is because Wall missed 39 games (during which they played admirably). Otherwise, their rotation is pretty much exactly the same (minus Bojan Bogdanovic) as last year’s squad that stretched the Celtics to seven games in the conference semifinals, and the Green no longer have Kelly Olynyk to save their bacon. Wall posted 28 points and 14 assists in Cleveland the other night, so the Wizards appear to have reached full-strength just in time.

Washington would also be motivated to avenge last year’s defeat. I don’t love the Celtics’ chances in that situation.

More: Hawks Beat Celtics 112-106

Speaking of Kelly Olynyk, he just made some cool cash down in Miami. While Boston had just one win in three regular season matchups against Erik Spoelstra’s squad, the Heat are probably the most desirable first round opponent. It remains a team stocked with role players, Goran Dragic running the point, Hasaan Whiteside gobbling up rebounds, and Dwyane Wade reduced to part-time status. They’re not particularly scary.

But when it comes to the coaches of Boston’s potential first round matchups, Spoelstra holds the advantage. Miami is top-5 in points allowed, top-10 in three-pointers made, and they play to the best of their capabilities. With Boston’s rotation so ravaged by injuries, Miami’s depth could also pose a problem.

Nevertheless, I’d favor the Green to move on.

BOSTON, MA – DECEMBER 4: Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics dunks during the second half of the game against the Milwaukee Bucks at TD Garden on December 4, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeat the Bucks 111-100. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Then, there’s Milwaukee. People are scared to death of the Greek Freak, but the Bucks boast quite a bit of top-end talent. Khris Middleton quietly posts impressive stat lines and Eric Bledsoe can be one of the more dynamic players in the NBA. There’s last year’s Rookie of the Year, Malcolm Brogdon, while Jabari Parker is back and looking to find his stride.

The problem is: the pieces don’t fit. Management canned Jason Kidd mid-season, and while the Bucks raced to nine wins in their first 11 games under Joe Prunty, they’ve since floated back to the pack. Boston split the season series, losing the post-Hayward injury game back in October and again the other night, with Kadeem Allen starting at the point.

It won’t be easy to survive Antetokounmpo, but the Celtics can win this matchup as well.

Should the Celtics escape to the second round, they’ll likely find the Cavaliers or 76ers waiting for them, with both teams on fire headed into the postseason. LeBron is steamrolling the league, Kevin Love is back, and Cleveland has won 10 of 12. Meanwhile, Philly has posted 14 wins in a row, mostly against hollow competition. But it remains an impressive feat, particularly in the wake of the injury to Joel Embiid.

More: Celtics Have Opportunity To Rest Players For Playoffs

The Pacers, who’ve been a huge pain in the neck for Boston this year, could also join the fracas.

Marcus Smart might be back by then, which would be first aid for a lineup now incredibly reliant on its defense (second in the NBA in points allowed). Philadelphia and Indiana haven’t yet proven to be anything more than paper tigers. And if the Celtics go on a run this spring, it would be far from the first time Brad Stevens’ squad has done something amazing.

(Photo Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports)

I hope we have fun this spring. I look forward to watching the team defy expectations and continue to grow under the hottest spotlight imaginable. The performances of Brown, Rozier and Tatum hold particular intrigue. In fact, I’d love to be writing about them in May.

There’s still no way I’m picking them over LeBron. And we all saw what happened last time out in Toronto.

After the Hayward injury, the bad news on Smart and Daniel Theis, even after Irving went under the knife the first time, I really, really didn’t want to use that old Boston sports cop-out line.
But just wait ‘til next year.

Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.