Celtics' demise falls on shoulders of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward

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USA Today

Celtics' demise falls on shoulders of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

NBA’s biggest questions before return

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NBC Sports

NBA’s biggest questions before return

The NBA is back. Well, sort of.

No Stephen Curry, Draymond Green or Klay Thompson.

No Trae Young, Karl-Anthony Towns or D’Angelo Russell. Teams in large markets like the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks will be watching from home. Charlotte, Detroit and Cleveland: back to the big board.

But for everyone else, NBA games are upon us. 

For weeks, the league office, the board of governors and the National Basketball Players Association have gone back-and-forth on a variety of ideas with the explicit goal of resuming the NBA season in some form. Everyone wanted to play basketball. That was never in doubt. But not everyone wanted to play basketball if it meant a substantial risk of getting infected with coronavirus or suffering a major injury due to the extreme circumstances.

Following Thursday’s board of governors vote, the NBA believes it has a plan to account for both of those risks. But as they say, the devil is in the details. 

As much as we’d like to believe we have all the answers and everything is wrapped with a bow, the world does not work that way. There’s still plenty of uncertainty in this plan.

Here are seven lingering questions as the NBA proceeds towards July 31.

Is it, you know, safe?

“It’s about the data, not the date.” Commissioner Adam Silver said those words on a conference call with the media in late April while addressing the NBA’s eventual return-to-play plans.

Well, it’s early June and we have a date. The data? That’s another story.

The league and the players union have insisted that health comes first and there are signs that they’re taking that side of the plan very seriously. For one, they’ve planned to convene at one central site. Secondly, according to an ESPN report, there are plans for daily testing, which would be an enormous undertaking financially, logistically and politically. 

In my discussions with epidemiologists and infectious-disease experts, those were critical elements of a safe return-to-play plan, but there are still finer details that need to be addressed. Who’s allowed in the bubble? What kind of tests will those people receive? Does the league have the requisite supplies? What about hotel, food and maintenance staff testing? 

Above all, the NBA would be wise to have a concrete plan in the case that one or multiple people inside the bubble test positive. How many positive tests are acceptable? One? One per team? Does a positive test in August have different implications than one in October presumably in the Finals? 

In talks with teams around the league, this is one of the thornier issues that team executives need the league to address. A strictly-enforced guideline on how to handle positive tests would do a lot to strip away the emotions that can get in the way of making sound decisions and help the league protect its employees -- players, coaches, execs or team staffers -- from harm.

Not every team is in the same position. Take the New Orleans Pelicans, whose head coach, Alvin Gentry, is 65 years old. His top assistant, Jeff Bzdelik, is 67 years old. The CDC states that people 65 years or older are considered a high risk for severe illness from COVID-19. If a positive test pops up on their team, does the NBA need to take stronger action than other teams? What if they played a team with a positive test? 

Should Gentry and Bzdelik have to wear a mask on the sidelines? Should they be on the sidelines? These are thorny questions that don’t appear to have answers at the moment. 

And that’s just one coaching staff. What about referees? The NBA’s longest-tenured referee, Ken Mauer, is 65 years old. So is longtime NBA referee Michael Smith. If Gentry and Bzdelik have to wear masks, do Mauer and Smith have to wear masks as well? Can you officiate that way? And would the NBA let them officiate games of teams if they officiated a team with a recent positive test?

It feels a bit like we’re putting the cart before the horse. We’ve already planned a return date when one of its teams, the Spurs, haven’t deemed it safe to reopen their own practice facility because of coronavirus concerns

All these questions are tricky because there is still so much we don’t know about the novel coronavirus. But teams are hoping the league addresses them clearly in a league-issued document.

Will NBA players take a knee?

As the league plots a return to the court, NBA players, the vast majority of whom identify as black or African-American, are facing more than a deadly pandemic. Perhaps no one put it more clearly than former NBA All-Star Caron Butler, who said Wednesday night on the NBA’s official platform: “We’ve been dealing with two viruses: COVID-19 and racism.”

When it comes to social issues and civil rights, NBA stars have been some of the most outspoken in all of American sports. These days have been no different. LeBron James, who in 2017 called the President a “bum” for his response to Stephen Curry’s White House rebuff, recently blasted Drew Brees on Twitter after the Saints quarterback reiterated that kneeling during the anthem is disrespectful to the military.  

Players like Curry, Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown and Towns have marched or attended rallies in recent days to protest systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of law enforcement. One of the most vocal activists in the country has been Floyd’s friend, Stephen Jackson, a 14-year NBA veteran.

While the NHL has plans for a return and MLB is negotiating for one, there’s no doubt that the NBA will be the main draw in town. As such, the NBA megaphone may be louder than ever. 

However, some players already feel a restart may be taking away from the larger societal conversation.

Los Angeles Clippers point guard Patrick Beverley is known as one of the fiercest competitors in the league, but he strongly disagreed with the renewed focus on basketball.

Beverley wasn’t alone. When news broke Wednesday of the imminent agreement on return-to-play, Brooklyn Nets forward Wilson Chandler tweeted: “Government can’t wait until the NBA start the season back. Need a distraction from the bulls*** that’s going on. Always in need of a distraction.” Miami Heat guard Andre Iguodala, Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma, San Antonio Spurs forward Trey Lyles each retweeted Chandler’s sentiment with supportive comments.

On Wednesday night, Kuzma went further, tweeting a photo of Brees kneeling with teammates with the caption: “This shows you that there are a lot of people & companies out there right now that will say they stand with us but only do it so they dont get bashed not because they mean it.”

League insiders have been supportive of NBA players protesting in the streets of America. But what happens if they take those protests to the basketball court? Or the national anthem itself? 

If NBA players decide to kneel during the anthem like Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players did, it will be in violation of NBA rules. In the Player/Team Conduct and Dress section of the Official NBA Rule Book, Rule 2 states: “Players, coaches and trainers are to stand and lineup in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the National Anthem.”

In 2017, the commissioner said he expects players to stand and follow the rules. The players did fall in line, choosing instead to stand with interlocked arms during the anthem for several games. 

NBA players might choose a different demonstration this time around. Kneeling during the anthem is officially against NBA rules, but it remains to be seen what the official punishment would be if NBA players decided to protest in that manner. One thing’s for sure: The world will be watching.

Is the scheduling fair?

The NBA landed on a compromise. They could have played the rest of the regular season or gone straight to the playoffs. Playing the rest of the regular season would mean teams would have to play 17 games on average. The NBA decided to split the difference and play eight.

Fair enough. But who would those 22 teams play in those eight games? One idea is to pick up where they left off before the league shutdown on March 11 and play the next eight games on the schedule. Seems fair, right?

That doesn’t work in a league where eight teams are no longer playing. For example, the Spurs’ next eight opponents were, in order: Denver, Minnesota, Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago, Utah, Utah again and finally a repeat date with Minnesota. Minnesota and Chicago aren’t going to be in Orlando. 

So what do you do? If you take those three games out and move up the next three opponents in line, the Spurs would then play Denver, Golden State and Sacramento. Uh, oh. Golden State won’t be there either. If you take Golden State out and look to their next scheduled game … you find Golden State, again. The next opponent would be New Orleans. To just get to eight games, the Spurs would have to look at their next 15 games.

But that sprouts two more problems. First, the Spurs just replaced non-playoff teams opponents with playoff-aspiring teams. Is that fair? By pure luck, the Grizzlies have already played 15 of their 16 scheduled games against the eight non-bubble teams, going 11-4 against the league’s doormat clubs. On the other hand, the Spurs just got five of their easier games erased and replaced them with harder opponents. Yikes.

And that brings the second issue. The Spurs’ eighth game against New Orleans? The Pelicans would be long done by then. 

To solve this issue, the league could just scrap the regular-season schedule and play a new set of games with fairer distribution of games.

You might say, “Who cares? Just play the games.” Try telling that to New Orleans, Portland, San Antonio and Sacramento, four small-market teams that are all but dead-locked in the standings and fighting for that final playoff spot. Every detail matters. 

Of course, there’s nothing fair about a pandemic. But there are things that the NBA can control. This is one of them, and it could have long-lasting ripple effects, especially for small market teams.

Given the huge moats surrounding the No. 8 seeds (Magic have a 5.5-game lead on the Wizards and Grizzlies have a 3.5-game lead on three teams), schedule equity could be a moot point anyway. The play-in game (it’s not a tournament) only comes into play if the ninth seed is within four games or fewer of the eighth seed at the end of the eight games. Even then, the No. 9 seed would have to win twice against the No. 8 seed to punch their ticket. Not to throw a wet blanket on the bubble teams, but if you’re not in the eighth seed by now, you’re basically Lloyd Christmas talking to Mary Swanson.

Will players be physically ready?

This is not like the 2011 lockout. This is a pandemic, not a work stoppage. In previous lockouts, the players regularly played pick-up games, sometimes for charity in front of crowds, to stay in shape. This time around, NBA players haven’t been allowed to play five-on-five in months. 

Early on in the process, the NBA presented a plan in which all 30 teams would return under the bubble environment, but that idea was met with considerable resistance, according to league sources. Multiple players and teams expressed disagreement with that idea and would rather not play than risk injury and infection. Portland was the lone team that dissented during Thursday’s vote and its star player, Damian Lillard, went on the record in late May to say he would sit out unless the Blazers could fight for the playoffs. Lillard told Yahoo Sports he was just coming off a groin injury and that factored into his calculus: “I'll be putting myself at risk for injury and reinjure myself.” 

The Blazers were given that chance to make the playoffs and still the team voted against. While it’s unclear how much of a role Lillard’s comments played into the Blazers’ position, it’s telling that even a superstar with five years guaranteed after this season is still iffy about risking it. According to reports, the Blazers preferred other formats and listened to their players before making the call.

Imagine being a free agent on a bubble team this summer and getting your body ready to play potentially only eight games. Is it worth it? If Washington Wizards sharpshooting forward and unrestricted-free-agent-to-be Davis Bertans felt the risk wasn’t worth the reward, I wouldn’t blame him for sitting out these games to protect what might be the biggest payday of his career.

Athletic trainers, strength and conditioning coaches and medical staffs will be hard-pressed to get their players ready in time for the July 31 kickoff. Three months of no basketball will disrupt the kinetic chain of joints, muscles and ligaments that make NBA players so thrilling to watch. 

On that note, prepare for some bad basketball as players work themselves back into shape. According to Basketball Reference tracking, the two biggest drops in year-to-year offensive efficiency in NBA history came during lockout seasons in 2011-12 (minus-2.7) and 1998-99 (minus-2.8). With a denser schedule and accelerated training camps, teams coughed up the ball at higher rates and shooting percentages bottomed out. Expect more of the same in the coming months. Basketball is back … ish.

What about the other eight teams?

The NBA’s 22-team return-to-play plan means we won’t see the Golden State Warriors in action until December. Here’s a crazy thought: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green will go 18 months without playing in real games together. Life comes at you fast in the NBA. 

I hope the other eight teams will be able to participate in some sort of charity tournament or other competition between now and whenever the 2020-21 season starts (Curry vs. Thompson showdown, anyone!?). Nine months without playing basketball is a long time -- especially for teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves who remade their roster at the trade deadline and had almost no time to build on-court chemistry. D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns played in one game together in the 2019-20 season.

There’s also the issue of the draft and the draft lottery. For the teams that make the playoffs, draft order will be based on their regular-season record, including their eight “seeded” games. But for the lottery teams, the lottery odds are locked in as of their record on March 11. 

That eliminates the incentive for the Wizards to tank the eight-game slate in epic fashion, go 0-and-8 and leap the Charlotte Hornets and Chicago Bulls in the draft order odds. As my astute colleague Dan Feldman points out, that would raise the Wizards’ odds of a top-three pick from six percent to 15 percent. 

My hope is that the Wizards wouldn’t do that for the spirit of the competition, but the fact that the NBA pre-empted such an egregious tank job by freezing draft odds on March 11 is a tacit admission that teams are incentivized to throw games. We should just abolish the draft all together and let prospects choose their destination like we do for NBA free agents already. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Charlotte and Chicago have to be happy the league stepped in. If there’s a silver lining for the Delete Eight, as John Hollinger brilliantly dubbed them, it’s that they can finally move forward with clarity. The draft is tentatively set for Oct. 15 and the Bulls, who have picked seventh in the last two drafts, have the seventh-best odds in the draft lottery. At least there’s some semblance of normalcy in all this.

How weird is this going to be?

Super weird, at first. Are we going to have ads covering up the seats? Are we going to pipe in crowd noise? How much will that taint the viewer experience? 

We’ll probably get used to that, just like we’re used to laugh tracks on sitcoms. We better get used to it. Believe me, the NBA or the players’ union won’t allow raw audio from the court to be heard at home. That screams PR disaster. 

Even if they could offer an “uncensored” feed for a nominal fee to scrape together some extra dough, I’m guessing the unsavory stuff would trickle out onto the internet in no time. There are better ways for the NBA to have fans feel more engaged and closer to the action. Referee cams? Alternate broadcaster teams? NBA Jam-like flames when a player hits consecutive shots? Let’s get weird.

What does this mean for the NBA beyond 2020?

Even before this pandemic hit, I’ve argued that the NBA should kick off the regular season on Christmas Day. It’s time to make it a permanent change. Most fans don’t tune into the NBA until Christmas anyway (the league office programs its national TV schedule accordingly). The NBA has owned that day on the sports calendar. Just make it official already.

Although the NBA says that it will “likely” begin the 2020-21 season on Dec. 1, I wouldn’t be surprised if they buy some more time to raise the chances that they can get at least some fans in the seats. The commissioner has told players recently that ticket revenue typically makes up 40 percent of the league’s income, according to a report from Shams Charania. That’s an enormous pile of cash to leave behind in 2020-21. 

It’d be difficult to slowly re-integrate fans into the stands without shutting down for a period of time, allowing arena staff to reset protocols and observe new health guidelines. Perhaps the NBA can gradually fill seats on the fly without a pause in the schedule, but finding a sensible and healthy way to recoup ticket revenues should be a top priority for 2020-21.

From a fatigue standpoint, a Dec. 1 start for next season seems to be pushing it. The Finals will end sometime in early October and training camp would be slated for Nov. 10. Do we really want the league’s best players and teams to be coming into training camp ragged for 2020-21? After an injury-marred season from Curry and Williamson, I’d imagine the league will be looking to ensure every possibility that its top draws are as healthy as possible.

It seems the dates for 2020-21 are moving targets, according to reports from ESPN. My educated guess is that the league settles on Christmas Day as the 2020-21 season opener, pending any major coronavirus developments. A lot can change between now and then.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

NBA has more work to do after George Floyd response

NBA has more work to do after George Floyd response

Out of 30 NBA teams, 28 issued official statements on Twitter regarding the George Floyd killing. The only two teams that failed to issue a statement with the New York Knicks and San Antonio Spurs, as of the morning of June 3. 

Spurs coach and team president Gregg Popovich condemned police brutality, white privlege and leadership issues in an interview with The Nation. The Spurs organization have not yet publicly backed Popovich's comments.

Out of those 28 teams, 26 cited Floyd by name, but only six official statements released on Twitter included the words police, law enforcement, or those in uniform. The Washington Wizards released possibly the strongest statement, notably doing so on behalf of their players, including the phrase, "We will no longer tolerate the assassination of people of color in this country."