Do the Nets know something we don't about Kyrie Irving's future?

Do the Nets know something we don't about Kyrie Irving's future?

The Brooklyn Nets cleared their path to chasing two maximum-salary players this summer when they reportedly agreed to a deal Thursday that will send Allen Crabbe and his $18.5 million salary to the Atlanta Hawks.

That the Nets were willing to move their own 2019 first-round pick to make the deal happen suggests a team that’s brashly confident in their ability to maximize those two slots. Remember, this would have been the first time Brooklyn had control of its actual first-round pick since 2013.

In breaking the news of the trade, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that, “Boston guard Kyrie Irving -- who is expected to become a free agent -- and Brooklyn have a strong mutual interest.”

Listen, if you subscribe to the whole “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” theory, then this hasn’t been a great week for those Celtics fans who want Irving back in green (even if, at times, it feels like that’s a low number, anyhow).

First, Stephen A. Smith suggested that Kyrie Irving has given “every indication” to the Nets that he wanted to sign there. Then Irving posted a video on Instagram of him hugging a New Jersey crossing guard from his childhood (the Nets were previously in Jersey). Then Irving got photographed walking into an apartment in New York, all while Danny Ainge sounded less than confident about where Irving and Boston’s so-called “engagement” stands.

The Nets came flying in from the top rope with a move Thursday that might have been their way of signaling to Irving, "Hey, look! You can come here and bring a friend!" (Cough, cough, Kevin Durant). The only people taking this news harder than the faction of Celtics fans that want Irving back is all the Knicks fans who thought the duo was ticketed for Madison Square Garden.

So the lingering question is whether the Nets know something more about Irving’s intentions or if they’re simply rolling the dice and positioning themselves for what should be an absolutely wild July.

The Knicks and Nets both have room for two max-contract free agents. The Clippers could soon join them. The Lakers have a max slot and might have the assets necessary to finally coerce the Pelicans into an Anthony Davis deal.

The Celtics are left hoping that Irving can at least give them some direction sooner than later. Boston has the assets to position itself in the Davis pursuit but might not be willing to navigate that path if Irving isn’t coming back, in part because if Davis bolted in the summer of 2020, the Celtics would be left with a bare roster and none of the future assets — like all those Nets picks — that helped it expedite the last turnover process.

Ainge noted in a meeting with reporters on Wednesday that typically the Celtics have Plans A through G ready for the summer. This year, Ainge noted it’s more like A through Z. And that’s probably a good strategy considering how wild things could get.

Is Irving simply putting pressure on Boston to make the sort of moves that would encourage his return with Brooklyn flirtations? Ainge said Wednesday that he didn’t know if there were any moves he could make that would heighten Irving’s desire to return.

"I don’t know the answer to that,” said Ainge. "I don’t know that yet.”

Are the Nets simply posturing themselves as confident about their chances at Irving in hopes the hype makes it a reality? Brooklyn GM Sean Marks has done a remarkable job steering the Nets back to being competitive despite being devoid of quality picks and, regardless of the Irving pursuit, the team is extremely well-positioned to emerge as a true player in the East.

Plucking Irving from Boston, of course, would be the ultimate NetsPick revenge.

For now, there is only one certainty: That there's still 14 days until draft night, and 10 more days after that until free agency truly begins.

Buckle up. This ride might be as bumpy as the Celtics’ 2018-19 season.

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Celtics hit encouraging injury report milestone entering Heat matchup

Celtics hit encouraging injury report milestone entering Heat matchup

The "hospital" Boston Celtics are no more.

The Celtics dealt with a steady stream of injuries throughout the 2019-20 NBA season, from Jaylen Brown's sprained ankle to Marcus Smart's various bumps and bruises to Kemba Walker's balky knee.

And while Walker's knee still keeps some C's fans up at night, the NBA's four-month layoff did wonders for the overall health of the squad.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Heat, which begins Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Want proof? The Celtics reported no injuries ahead of Tuesday's seeding-round matchup with the Miami Heat in Orlando. That's their third consecutive contest with a clean injury sheet -- their longest no-injury streak of the season, per 98.5 The Sports Hub's Brian Robb.

Walker was on a minutes limit for Boston's first two games in the bubble (19 minutes against the Milwaukee Bucks and 22 minutes versus the Portland Trail Blazers) so the Celtics still aren't at peak operation.

But key contributors Jayson Tatum, Brown, Smart and Gordon Hayward -- in addition to big men Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter and Robert Williams -- are all available for head coach Brad Stevens, which was rarely the case during the pre-pandemic regular season.

If Walker can return to full strength by the end of the seeding round, we could see a fully-healthy C's squad in the postseason. (Yes, we just knocked on wood.) Considering they went 43-21 while battling a stream of injuries, it's no wonder why some believe the Celtics can make a deep playoff run in Orlando.

Celtics' challenging playoff path emerging with 3-seed all but ensured

Celtics' challenging playoff path emerging with 3-seed all but ensured

As the Eastern Conference playoff picture starts to come into focus, the Boston Celtics are staring at a daunting postseason path that reaffirms that the East is anything but the kid brother to the big, bad West.

The Celtics will soon be locked into the No. 3 spot in the East. Entering Tuesday’s game against a Miami Heat team on their tail, Boston owns a 92.6 percent chance of being the third seed, based on ESPN’s Basketball Power Index projections. A win against Miami would basically ensure the Celtics will not be caught by any of the teams behind them.

A head-to-head matchup with Toronto Friday could keep in play the quest for the No. 2 seed in play, but it’s an incredibly long shot with only a 5.6 percent chance entering Tuesday’s play.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Heat, which begins Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

The question quickly becomes who will emerge as the No. 6 seed and pair with Boston in a first-round matchup. BPI projections have the Philadelphia 76ers as the strong favorite to land that spot (63.7 percent) with the Pacers (28.8 percent) and Heat (7.4 percent ) in the mix.

All of which means that Boston is staring at a possible Finals path of Philadelphia, Toronto, and Milwaukee — arguably the three other most talented teams in the conference.

Boston can feel relatively confident about their chances against the Bucks after Friday’s tilt in which the Celtics rallied out of a monster early hole and were one (or two?) overturned Giannis Antetokounmpo foul out(s) from escaping with a victory. What’s more, All-Star point guard Kemba Walker played only half his typical playoff minutes while on a minutes restriction (though the Bucks, it should be noted, were also without Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton).

The earlier rounds could be equally as daunting, however. The defending champion Raptors have opened seeding-game play by thumping the Los Angeles Lakers and holding off the Heat. Toronto could be the most disrespected defending league champ in league history the way most view their chances without Kawhi Leonard and yet the Raptors have a blend of talent, coaching, and experience that ought to make them a very undesirable playoff foe.

And then there’s Philadelphia. Maybe the most confounding team in the NBA. As talented as any of the top title contenders but lacking the consistency and chemistry of an elite squad, the 76ers forecast vacillates daily between early exit and title dark horse.

For the second time in as many games, Philadelphia nearly fumbled away another win on Monday night against the Spurs. In a meltdown against Indiana, Joel Embiid and Shake Milton got into a sideline shouting match but Milton responded Monday with a 16-point night that included hitting the go-ahead 3-pointer in the final seconds against San Antonio.

The helter-skelter nature of the 76ers makes it hard to gauge their true playoff potential. Will their misfit ways make them an easy first-round foe, or could they finally harness their talent and upset a top seed?

One thing is for sure, Philadelphia’s size really bothered Boston during the regular season. Walker and his teammates struggle to finish near the basket and simply getting clean perimeter looks was tough with Philadelphia’s overall length. The Sixers took the first three head-to-head matchups of the year against Boston before the Celtics emerged with a February win at TD Garden.

BPI projects Boston with a 67 percent chance to win a first-round series but remember that’s based on season results. The 76ers are far more talented than their performance to this point suggests.

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There's a whole bunch of scoreboard watching coming for Celtics fans, a lot of whom would much prefer to see a dinged-up Indiana team slide to No. 6 than see what becomes of the Sixers.

So who ultimately emerges with that No. 6 seed?

Philadelphia’s schedule gives it a chance to climb. The Sixers play the Wizards, Magic, Blazers, and Suns in their next four games — three of those teams might not be making it out of seeding play and the other could be out of the playoffs real fast. The Sixers finish up against a Toronto team that should already have the No. 2 seed locked up before playing the Rockets.

Indiana opened seeding games with consecutive wins and, despite losing Domantas Sabonis to a foot injury and treading cautiously with Victor Oladipo’s knee, the Pacers have Malcolm Brogdon back now. Like Philadelphia, the Pacers' schedule remains agreeable with Orlando and Phoenix, then a showdown with a Lakers team that has already clinched the top spot in the West.

What’s interesting is two head-to-head matchups with Miami, including in the seeding-games finale, which could have big ramifications on how the 4-5-6 spots shake out in the East.

The bottom line is that, despite being one of the top squads in the East, nothing will come easy for Boston. While Milwaukee and Toronto should have first-round layups, the Celtics could have to grind. And the challenges will only grow with each round.

The Celtics need to get healthy — and stay healthy — then harness their own potential in order to thrive given the challenges ahead.