PHILADELPHIA -- Here we go again.
When it comes to surviving, and even thriving, without their best player, nobody does it better than the Boston Celtics.
The optics going into Tuesday’s matchup with Philadelphia weren't encouraging for Boston. Philadelphia came in playing its best basketball of the season, with a lineup that was crushing opponents with its lethal offensive weaponry.
So what did the Celtics do?
They rolled into Philly and rolled over the Sixers for a 112-109 win in a game in which they led for most of the night. And they did so without Kyrie Irving, who's out because of a right knee sprain.
The win not only bolstered the Celts' overall record to 36-21, putting them in a tie for fourth place in the Eastern Conference with Philadelphia, it gave them the season series with the Sixers for the fifth straight year.
And it added another chapter to the narrative that the Celtics are a better team without Kyrie Irving.
It sounds like absolute lunacy to believe that playing without a 26-year-old, six-time All-Star makes you a better team. But you can sort through a wide range of data and come away with a large swath of numbers to assert that position.
- With Irving, Boston has shot 46 percent from the field. In the 10 games without him, that number improves to 48.3 percent.
- When it comes to points scored, the Celtics average 112.8 with Irving, 113.5 without him.
- Defensively, Boston is allowing a respectable 107.3 points with Irving in the lineup, But that number takes a noticeable dip to 102.8 points per game when he's out.
But there’s really just one number that matters: Win total. And without Irving, Boston has shown itself capable of winning. A lot.
Tuesday’s victory improved Boston’s record to 8-2 (.800 winning percentage) this season without Irving on the floor, compared to 28-19 (.595) with him.
However, here’s the cold reality of playing without Irving.
While the Celtics certainly look good now, they aren't going to have the kind of deep postseason run they envision without a relatively healthy Kyrie Irving.
"If only the Celtics believed that," an Eastern Conference scout jokingly texted NBC Sports Boston when asked about Boston being better without Irving. "Come playoff time, Kyrie becomes an absolute killer on the court. We know this. And Danny Ainge and the Celtics, they know it, too."
Last season’s postseason sprint to the Conference finals -- without Irving logging a single minute due to a knee surgery -- elevated the expectations of many for this franchise. But as impressive as that run was, the season still ended without a trip to the NBA Finals.
That’s because the playoffs, more than any time of the NBA season, is the time of year when the deeper you get, the more star power trumps depth.
What’s often forgotten about regular-season play versus what you see in the playoffs is how the postseason really is geared more towards teams whose base is more heavily built upon the shoulders of superstars or stars on the rise.
And that has a way of limiting a team like the Celtics, whose greatest strength lies in their depth.
That's where Irving comes in. He's one of the NBA’s best players and he's shown the ability to elevate his play when the games matter most -- in the playoffs.
In his three trips to the postseason, Irving is a career 23.9 points per game scorer -- better than his career regular-season average of 22.1. He's averaged more points in each of his last two postseason appearances, both of which included trips to the NBA Finals with the Cleveland Cavaliers. That speaks to his ability to score at a high level over an extended period of time, and having a player with that strength is key to any team's postseason success.
What we have seen from Boston in the regular season is what you expect from a team with lots of depth. However, successfully navigating through the rough terrain of the playoffs requires a different kind of talent; the kind of talent that can single-handedly carry a team to victory on any given night.
Without Irving, Boston doesn’t have a player with that pedigree right now.
Jayson Tatum has shown flashes. Ditto for Al Horford, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and others here and there.
But none of them are in the same class as Irving when it comes to putting a team on their back and leading it to victory when the stakes are at their highest.
So as much as the “Boston’s better without Kyrie” crowd will point to the team’s play without Irving, the Celtics' postseason journey won't include a trip to the NBA Finals -- their primary goal all season -- if he's not there.
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