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.
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.
That Davis would consider coming to the Celtics — and signing a long-term deal after his contract expires next summer — without Irving, is notable, especially considering the point guards future looks much murkier these days after Bostons playoff exit.
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 doesnt 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.
Ive heard that Davis wouldnt completely rule out staying with the Celtics without Irving, but the odds of him re-upping in that scenario are significantly lower.
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 teams future?
Video: Paul Pierce apologizes to the Bucks — then things get heated about Kawhi Leonard | NBA Countdown
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, hes more deliberate. Irvings 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. Its easy to get caught up admiring Irvings handiwork.
NBA Rumors: Anthony Davis open to joining Kyrie Irving-less Celtics? originally appeared on nbcsportsboston.com
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. Thats 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: Im trying to do it all. For me, the 22 shots, I should have shot 30. Im that great of a shooter.
There were hints of Kyries 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 wouldnt work against Milwaukees 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 years Celtics team, it was stagnant ball movement. That was the biggest difference separating last years overachieving team and this years underachieving version. Last years 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 Popovichs 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, thats something you can live with. Not all great offenses need ball movement to thrive, but its 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 Irvings services, trust can fray easily and defensive effort can wane. Offense and defense dont operate in silos. Boston forward Marcus Morris put it bluntly after the Game 4 loss.
Im sorry to say it, but our offense is dictating our defense, Morris told NBC Sports Chris Forsberg. We miss shots, were not getting back. I feel like weve been pretty soft.
In the Game 1 win, the Celtics were locked in, giving up just 13 field goals at the rim. Heres 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.
Irvings hero-ball tendencies were supposed to be balanced out by Gordon Haywards facilitating. It didnt 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 dont get four-year, $128 million contracts.
So Rodgers had no problem calling out Pierce on Twitter when the series had swung completely in Milwaukee’s favor:
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, Haywards 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 wasnt 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. Haywards 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 isnt easy. But were coming up on 19-month mark since that event. Its 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.
Its 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.
Irvings 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 theyre the frontrunners for Anthony Davis (should he be moved this summer) because of Irving and his relationship with Davis. Its 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 cant 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 thats 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. Its too early to peg Bostons 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, Bostons future looks as unpredictable as any in the East.
When cameras from the Milwaukee Bucks-Boston Celtics game Wednesday cut to Aaron Rodgers and Danica Patrick, NBA fans had so many questions about what they saw.
On the surface, it looked like a fan near the sports power couple bought Patrick a drink literally behind Rodgers’ back. And people loved what appeared to be this guy shooting his shot with the retired NASCAR driver.
But, of course, like we said when we first wrote about this, there was absolutely more to this story than what was captured in a few seconds by cameras. And now we have just about all the answers about what exactly happened here.
WTMJ, a radio station in Wisconsin, identified the Bucks fan who appeared to buy Danica a drink and had him on The Steve Scaffidi Show.
According to the station, his name is Rick Barrett, and he’s a real estate executive in the area. And he explained exactly what happened during that brief exchange, confirming he was not, in fact, hitting on Danica.
“Well, (drinks in) courtside seats are free. But at that point, I created a tip that Danica had been giving for drinks that she had ordered before – one before that. And she just gave a tip in the previous time, so I thought I would do the same on her behalf.”
He added that because they’ve all sat in those seats before — Rodgers is part of the Bucks ownership group — he’s gotten to know Rodgers and Patrick a little bit. He even told WTMJ that he even joked with Rodgers and asked who was behind the wheel when they drove from Green Bay to Milwaukee. But he said that they’re “always making jokes” with them.
Barrett also said his son first told him that the moment was going viral, and he admitted he didn’t really know what that meant:
“My from the University of Iowa is studying for his exams — it’s exam week down there — and he texts me. He says, ‘Dad, you’re trending on Twitter.’ I said, ‘I don’t really know what that is.”
So there you have it. Unsurprisingly, the truth behind the viral video is more about being polite than juicy gossip.
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