As the Celtics have churned through these playoffs in a way almost nobody saw coming, if you squinted, you could actually see people out there starting to question, maybe, if the Celtics might not be better off, or at least just fine, without Kyrie Irving and/or Gordon Hayward. It wasn't logical, but we sports people are nothing if not prisoners of the moment, and damn if the Celtics haven't looked ridiculously good without their two best players on paper.
Until Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference finals -- both of which the Cavs won, handily, with the most recent being aon Monday that wasn't as close as that score would indicate, although the Celtics did hang around harder, and longer, than almost any other team would have given the way most of this game went.
So now the series is tied 2-2.
And Cleveland has all the momentum.
It's not all bad news for Boston. Not by a long shot. Had you told anyone with any connection to the Celtics that this is the position they would be in when it was announced Irving would miss the entire postseason, that they would be entering into an effective three-game series with the Cavs for a berth in the NBA Finals with home-court on their side, they would've taken it in a heartbeat. But the closer these do-it-by-committee Celtics get to actually pulling off one of the more improbable Finals runs in modern NBA history, the more it's starting to feel like a missed opportunity if they don't make it. And Irving is really feeling like the missing piece.
Obviously, Hayward would be a major help right about now, too, but he's been out all season. He's more in that "man, this team is going to be a monster next season" conversation. Irving was a top-10 player in the league this season. The Celtics were one of the best teams in basketball with him. It has been remarkable to watch Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown become go-to scorers, to watch Terry Rozier break out, to watch Marcus Smart, well, do what he does. Brad Stevens is a basketball magician. Al Horford is a terrific player.
But Irving is something different than all these guys. That's what we're being reminded of right now. The Cavaliers have a player in LeBron who can go out and get you 44 (as he did in Game 4, his sixth 40-point showing of the playoffs), and the Celtics are missing their one player who can do the same. That, for the most part, was the difference in Game 4. It may end up being the difference in this series.
It's not to take anything away from the Cavs' supporting cast, which has stepped up in a major way these past two games. Tristan Thompson erased Horford on Monday. J.R. Smith is making contested 3-pointers again. Kyle Korver is drilling shots and playing his butt off defensively. Kevin Love has been pretty solid. George Hill has been aggressive and effective, particularly of the pick-and-roll which is big because it allows LeBron to catch the ball at spots rather than have to initiate the offense off the dribble every time. The whole team is suddenly playing really well, and really hard, which is a credit to them, because they were on the brink.
But let's be honest: This comes down to LeBron. Everything all these Cavs are doing, it starts with LeBron. He just flat out creates offense, and at the moment, the Celtics are struggling to find a consistent offensive source when their system, and collective pace and energy, isn't creating shots for them. Cleveland was a mess defensively in the first two games, so scoring came easily. That isn't the case anymore. Now the Celtics are having to really earn their buckets, which, it turns out, is a little easier to do when you can lean on a professional bucket-getter like Irving.
All of this, of course, is stating the obvious. So the Celtics would be better with a top-10 player in the league. Big shock. But again, it has become easier and easier to forget about -- or at least not focus on -- the Celtics who aren't currently playing as we've gotten more and more sucked in by the ones who are.
Personally, I still think the Celtics can win this series. Before Game 4, I was adamant that they would win it. I can't say that now. But they can clearly still win this thing. It's pretty simple: They have to win two more games, and it just so happens that they have two of the next potential three games in this series at home, where they are 9-0 in the playoffs.
But this is where you need stars. In these situations. These games. And Kyrie Irving is a star. I took a beating on Twitter on Monday night because I suggested that Horford, who is probably the Celtics' best player right now, might not be an actual certified star who can carry a team in games like the ones Boston is about to play, but there is no doubt that Irving is that kind of player. We've seen it before. We know for a fact that Irving is capable of being the best player on the floor in the biggest moments.
And it's not just what he did for the Cavs in his previous basketball life. He was so great in Boston this year. When the Celtics raced out of the gate to start the year, he was making so many tough, winning shots for them. This is exactly why the Celtics went and got him. To give them that "it" guy, that guy who can can create something out of nothing, who can swing the tide all on his own when possessions break down, when games start to slip away, and when berth in the Finals potentially starts to follow.