The Boston Celtics were moments away from punching their ticket to the 2018 NBA Finals. With a little over six minutes left in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, Marcus Morris drew a double-team on the left block and passed out to Jaylen Brown at the top of the key, who whipped the ball to Marcus Smart on the right wing, who immediately swung the ball to Jayson Tatum in the right corner. Boom, boom, boom. Tatum took a confident side-dribble and rose up for a 3-pointer in front of the raucous Boston crowd.
“BANG!” yelled ABC’s Mike Breen on the call.
Just like that, the Celtics were up one inside six minutes against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The defense dug in and the ball was humming. That 3 by the 20-year-old Tatum came on the heels of his thunderous one-handed slam over James, again fed by Smart, that nearly blew the roof off of TD Garden.
This was an unthinkable scenario. Could the baby Celtics really pull this off without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward?
That question would be answered with a resounding “no.” The Celtics imploded from there, missing their next 10 shots from the floor to spur a 15-2 Cavs run that slammed the door shut on the Celtics’ Cinderella playoff hopes.
The ending was tough to stomach, but logic dictated that if the Celtics could play like that and add Irving and Hayward to the mix, this team would be nearly unstoppable.
However, the NBA doesn’t always follow a linear progression. The "If they could play like that" assumption turned out to be foolish. Integrating Irving and Hayward proved much harder than anticipated. Tatum, Brown and Terry Rozier largely struggled in smaller roles, and the Celtics won just 49 games. The top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks dismantled the updated version of the Celtics in just five games.
The 2018-19 season ended up being a case of subtraction by addition. But should we have seen this coming? And what does it mean for team’s future?
Kyrie Irving is a magician with the ball. The six-time All-Star often pulls himself out of impossible knots that would draw the envy of even Houdini himself. Other times, he’s more deliberate. Irving’s iconic dagger against the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 Finals was preceded by 14 hypnotic dribbles on Stephen Curry just before he darted to his spot. It’s easy to get caught up admiring Irving’s handiwork.
Too often, that was the case with the Celtics this season, a bad habit that only festered in the postseason. Irving held possession of the ball for 6.9 minutes per game this postseason, according to NBA.com tracking. That’s way up from his average of 5.5 minutes of possession in the regular season and represents one of the largest playoff jumps among all players.
Ball-watching was always a worry with an Irving-led offense. You can get away with that hero-ball if Irving is hitting his shots, but Irving often found himself stuck in the mud, shooting 35.6 percent in the series against Milwaukee. More often than not, it was Kyrie against the world. He summed up his Mamba Mentality after struggling through 7-of-22 shooting in Game 4: “I’m trying to do it all. For me, the 22 shots, I should have shot 30. I’m that great of a shooter.”
There were hints of Kyrie’s hero-ball in the Pacers series, but who wants to point that out during a sweep? Irving made 21 2-pointers in that series; none of them were assisted by teammates. To put that in perspective, Irving was assisted on one of every four 2-pointers during the Cavs’ championship run. Tunnel vision wouldn’t work against Milwaukee’s top-ranked defense. And sure enough, Irving fought through the worst four-game shooting stretch of his playoff career.
If you can point to anything that plagued this year’s Celtics team, it was stagnant ball movement. That was the biggest difference separating last year’s overachieving team and this year’s underachieving version. Last year’s Celtics made their near-Finals run with an egalitarian approach that got everyone touches. Boston averaged 314.9 passes per 100 possessions in the 2018 postseason, third-highest in the field behind Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs and the Philadelphia 76ers, led by Pop-disciple Brett Brown.
With Irving on the team, the Celtics got bogged down and averaged 272.4 passes per 100 possessions in 2019, or about 42 passes fewer than they did last postseason. Again, if Irving is hitting his shots, that’s something you can live with. Not all great offenses need ball movement to thrive, but it’s not a coincidence that the Celtics were 10-19 (.334) when Irving took more than 22 shots in a game over the last two seasons (but you already knew that).
The Celtics are at their best when everyone gets involved. With a young core that had already won enormous playoff games without Irving’s services, trust can fray easily and defensive effort can wane. Offense and defense don’t operate in silos. Boston forward Marcus Morris put it bluntly after the Game 4 loss.
“I’m sorry to say it, but our offense is dictating our defense,” Morris told NBC Sports’ Chris Forsberg. “We miss shots, we’re not getting back. I feel like we’ve been pretty soft.”
In the Game 1 win, the Celtics were locked in, giving up just 13 field goals at the rim. Here’s what that total looked like in the next three games: 16, 23 and 29. By then, the Bucks had broken the Celtics’ defense, and in turn, their season.
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Irving’s hero-ball tendencies were supposed to be balanced out by Gordon Hayward’s facilitating. It didn’t work out that way. Injury or not, the Celtics simply needed more from Hayward this season. Instead, he turned into a more expensive Evan Turner, who is a fine role player, but even the best role players don’t get four-year, $128 million contracts.
The plan was for Hayward, coming off a catastrophic ankle injury in the 2017-18 season opener, to step in right away and co-star with Irving. But after a string of uneven performances, Brad Stevens removed him from the starting lineup just one month into the 2019 season. Hayward was relegated to the second unit where the hope was he might regain his confidence and become a starter again. But Hayward finished the season averaging just 11.5 points and shooting a disappointing 33.3 percent from downtown, a far cry from his levels in Utah.
Many hoped that Hayward would improve as the season went on, but his role only diminished as the playoffs arrived. In his final season in Utah, his only All-Star season of his career, Hayward’s usage rate on offense was 27.6 percent. This season, it fell to 19.0 percent in the regular season and dipped again to 17.3 percent in the opening round. Against Milwaukee, it bottomed out at 14.1 percent.
He just wasn’t able to turn the corner as many expected would happen by now and it showed on the court. Too often Hayward would drive into the teeth of the defense and kick out to shooters rather than attack the rim. Hayward’s passivity became such a problem that he was almost unplayable in this series. The Celtics were 15.1 points worse per 100 possessions with him on the floor against Milwaukee, per NBA.com data.
We can chalk some of this up to the traumatic injury to his ankle. Overcoming that isn’t easy. But we’re coming up on 19-month mark since that event. It’s becoming harder to fall back on that rationale. Paul George was averaging 27.2 points per game 16 months after his catastrophic leg injury in Las Vegas. Two separate injuries, two separate bodies and minds, sure. But make no mistake about it: This is a big summer for Hayward.
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It’s also a big summer for the organization as a whole. Everyone from Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens down to Irving and Hayward need to do some soul searching ahead of a potentially franchise-shifting few months.
Irving’s comments throughout the season -- chiding his younger teammates for their inexperience, publicizing his make-up phone call with LeBron James, shifting his free-agency stance back-and-forth (our own Chris Forsberg detailed the roller coaster here) -- raised eyebrows around the league, showing the basketball world that Irving may have some serious room to grow as a leader. But there are still people within the Celtics organization that believe they’re the frontrunners for Anthony Davis (should he be moved this summer) because of Irving and his relationship with Davis. It’s also no secret that former Cavs GM David Griffin, the new head of basketball operations in New Orleans, has a strong working relationship with Ainge, his former boss.
If Irving can’t be a legitimate No. 1, could he be a No. 2 next to Davis? Probably. Would a triumvirate of Irving, Davis and Hayward be the favorites in the East, even after all the red flags this season? Possibly. But that’s assuming Irving wants to be back. Irving has a player option for next season, but he is sure to decline it in order to lock in a long-term contract. The Celtics can offer him an extra year, totaling $190 million over five years. If he decides to take his talents elsewhere, he can sign a four-year, $141 million contract with his new team. Teams with cap space like the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers, L.A. Clippers and the New York Knicks figure to be top suitors.
A lot can change. Sixty percent of the starters in the Eastern Conference semifinals can be free agents this summer including Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol. It’s too early to peg Boston’s place in the pecking order amongst the East elite. But this much is true: Irving tried to do too much, Hayward not enough. Their star presence was supposed to bring clarity and stability around a young core. Instead, Boston’s future looks as unpredictable as any in the East.