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Celtics making unprecedented playoff run without their top regular-season player, Kyrie Irving

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The Celtics’ season as they envisioned it ended when Gordon Hayward went down with a gruesome leg injury in the first game.

The Celtics’ season as they knew it ended when Kyrie Irving underwent surgery that’d keep him out for the playoffs.

Boston had grand dreams of Hayward and Irving leading the team deep into the playoffs, but those were dashed nearly immediately. Without Hayward, the Celtics were viewed as a team that must scratch and claw its way just into the postseason.

Months later, we learned the truth: Boston was still very good. The Celtics won 55 games and secured the No. 2 seed.

Hayward is a prominent character in the narrative of Boston’s 2017-18 season. But the actual on-court results? He was irrelevant.

Irving, on the other hand, was integral to the team’s on-court success. He was an All-Star, MVP-ballot candidate and the Celtics’ best player. Not only did he lead them, they spent the year building chemistry around him.

And then he was sidelined, too.

Weakened, Boston entered the playoffs with little hope. Nearly every statistical evaluation of Boston’s chances factored Irving’s contributions. Those that tried to exclude him didn’t view the Celtics favorably.

Yet, Boston beat the Bucks in the first round and the 76ers in the second round. Young players Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier are stepping up. Al Horford is a star who dialed it up a level. Brad Stevens is out-coaching his counterparts.

This is a momentous rally.

From the NBA-ABA merger until this year, teams were 0-10 in playoff series without their top regular-season player, as defined by win shares. The 2018 Celtics are 2-0 entering the Eastern Conference finals.

Boston is the first team in NBA history to win multiple playoff series without its regular-season win shares leader.

The last to win at all was the 1971 Lakers, who beat the Bulls in the conference semifinals (then the opening round) then lost to the Bucks in the conference finals without Jerry West. Yes, it was so far back, Los Angeles was playing Chicago and Milwaukee in the Western Conference playoffs.

At least the league was known as the National Basketball Association by then. The only other two teams to win a series without their regular-season win-share leaders did it when it was still called the Basketball Association of America.

Here’s every playoff run by a team missing its regular-season win-share leader:

2016 Memphis Grizzlies (Mike Conley)

Lost to San Antonio Spurs in first round, 4-0

2013 Los Angeles Lakers (Kobe Bryant)

Lost to San Antonio Spurs in first round, 4-0

2010 Milwaukee Bucks (Andrew Bogut)

Lost to Atlanta Hawks in first round, 4-3

2008 Houston Rockets (Yao Ming)

Lost to Utah Jazz in first round, 4-2

2007 Washington Wizards (Gilbert Arenas)

Lost to Cleveland Cavaliers in first round, 4-0

2002 Toronto Raptors (Vince Carter)

Lost to Detroit Pistons in first round, 3-2

2000 San Antonio Spurs (Tim Duncan)

Lost to Phoenix Suns in first round, 3-1

1992 San Antonio Spurs (David Robinson)

Lost to Phoenix Suns in first round, 3-0

1986 Utah Jazz (Adrian Dantley)

Lost to Dallas Mavericks in first round, 3-1

1985 Phoenix Suns (Larry Nance)

Lost to Los Angeles Lakers in first round, 3-0

1971 Los Angeles Lakers (Jerry West)

Beat Chicago Bulls in conference semifinals, 4-3

Lost to Milwaukee Bucks in conference finals, 4-1

1950  Tri-Cities Blackhawks (Don Otten)

Lost to Anderson Packers in division semifinals, 2-1

1949 Washington Capitols (Bob Feerick)*

Beat Philadelphia Warriors in division semifinals, 2-0

Lost to Minneapolis Lakers in BAA Finals, 4-2

*Feerick played one game in the division finals, in which the Capitols beat the New York Knicks, 2-1.

1947 New York Knicks (Ossie Schectman)

Beat Cleveland Rebels in quarterfinals, 2-1

Lost to Philadelphia Warriors in semifinals, 2-0

Report: Brad Stevens’ dedication to Gordon Hayward caused chemistry issues with Celtics

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Things are not all well in Boston. The Celtics are already in a free fall when it comes to free agency, and it’s not yet July. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are reportedly poised not to return to TD Garden next year. Now, a team that was aiming for the NBA Finals next year could be in serious trouble.

Things have quickly fallen apart for Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens, who are left with a team that also has an apparent enemy in one of the biggest agencies in Klutch Sports. Boston reportedly backed out of serious offers in trade negotiations with the New Orleans Pelicans in part because they felt as though Klutch client Anthony Davis would not re-sign after one year.

Basketball is a game of chemistry, and the Celtics seemed to lose theirs over the course of the year. At least externally, it appeared Boston was disintegrating. Now, according to a report from Jackie MacMullan, we have some confirmation of this rift.

Via NBC Sports Boston:

“You hate to pick on Gordon Hayward because he was coming back from injury and he was doing the best he could, but I really think that’s where it started,” she said. “They were force feeding him on his teammates, Brad [Stevens] knew Gordon well, he wanted to get his confidence back.

“I would contend that Brad Stevens would have done that for any player on that roster that had a catastrophic injury, he would want to fill him with that same confidence, but that’s not what happened,” MacMullan continued. “He gave the benefit of the doubt over and over to a player that wasn’t ready, to a guy who had history with him, and it rankled that locker room, and it bothered that locker room.”

The Celtics have a roster on paper that should have been good enough to get them deep into the playoffs. But Hayward returned and never really looked like himself, and Stevens devoting his faith to his former Butler Bulldog was obviously misplaced.

Chemistry issues for Boston we’re not all to blame on Stevens and Hayward. Irving is perennially mercurial. Given a situation where he got his own team (whatever that means) he didn’t lead the way folks were expecting.

Unless something drastic can be done — and don’t put it past Danny Ainge to get wild — Boston could be taking a step back next season.

Their saving grace, ironically, could be a fully healthy Hayward who has more reign to do what he wants and an unrestricted role on offense. We’ll see how that goes.

Report: Kawhi Leonard focusing on Clippers in free agency

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Kawhi Leonard might not be with the Toronto Raptors next season. That much has been apparent ever since the Raptors traded for Leonard last year, but the team did just win the 2019 NBA Finals. You know what they say: winning fixes everything.

But we are now into the thick of the NBA offseason, and that means crazy rumors and a wild game of Free agency musical chairs. Leonard could end up in many places, including Toronto. But the talk all along has been how Leonard prefers to land in Los Angeles.

The only problem for fans in L.A. county? His landing spot is unlikely to be the Los Angeles Lakers.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard’s focused on Los Angeles but only with the Clippers. In Wojnarowski’s opinion, Leonard is not interested in joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis as a third wheel on a superstar, big three type of Team. Instead, Leonard wants to have his own team match the way he does in Toronto. That could easily be the case with the Clippers.

Via ESPN:

The Lakers are trying to open up enough cap space for a third max-level player, which Leonard obviously is. But if things stand how they are now, Rob Pelinka and the Lakers will need to go elsewhere to find a third star to play alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Obviously the Lakers would be better suited by using their cap space to fill out their roster around their two superstars, but they probably won’t do that. In the end, Leonard focusing on the Clippers seems like the right choice.

Report: Lakers trying to open max salary slot with Anthony Davis trade

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The Los Angeles Lakers have Anthony Davis, but they aren’t done tweaking the details of the deal yet. Depending on when Davis’ trade gets completed, Los Angeles will open up myriad financial options for their free agency extravaganza this summer. Now it appears the Lakers might be trying to get a third team involved to help them grab max cap space.

We’ve explained the cap ramifications as the deal stood with the New Orleans Pelicans already. On one end, Los Angeles could wait until July 30. After renouncing some free agents, this would leave L.A. with $32 million in cap space. If they complete the deal on July 6, and if Davis waives his $4 million trade kicker, they end up with somewhere between $24 — $28 million.

Now it appears the Lakers will go for the full max slot space.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Lakers are looking to ship out some of its younger players — turning the Davis trade with New Orleans into a 3-team deal — to satisfy some CBA rules that allow them to get to that mark. The Lakers have made Mo Wagner, Jemerrio Jones, and Isaac Bonga available.

Via Twitter:

Los Angeles is also reportedly looking to grab some second round picks, which allow for cheap contracts that they can use to fill out its roster while going over the salary cap.

This is a bold endeavor.

No doubt the front office in L.A. looked at the trade the Toronto Raptors made for Kawhi Leonard this past season feel as though adding more stars to its roster cannot possibly hurt. The only problem is that the Raptors already had a team good team unit in place when they traded for Leonard. Los Angeles won’t have any players of note when they head into this season, even if they are able to sign a third star to go with LeBron James and Davis.

It’s really going to be difficult to see how Davis, James, and a third star will carry this team if there is a steep drop-off between the bench rotation. Even considering veteran minimum signings — which always happen for championship-contending teams — this team needs more role players.

This is an extremely Los Angeles thing to do, and this thing just keeps getting more complicated the farther we get into the NBA offseason. It’s not even July yet, and it’s already wild in the Association.

Report: Al Horford not returning to Boston, will sign elsewhere this summer

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Boston’s disastrous season — and off-season — just keeps getting worse. Anthony Davis is a Laker, Kyrie Irving is out the door and now this.

Al Horford opted out of the $30.1 million the Celtics owed him this summer, but that was expected. A lot of people around the league also assumed he would begin negotiating with Boston to return for a longer contract, worth more money overall but a little less per year, that would give him some security.

He is going to get that security elsewhere, reports Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald.

The buzz from around the league is this is more about Boston not wanting to pay him and do a retooling of their roster around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown than it is Horford wanting out. Either way, it puts an outstanding player on the market.

Horford is 33 years old and teams may be concerned about the final year of a four-year contract, but he is kind of glue big man who can do everything well that could fit a lot of places and lift teams up to the next level. Horford can play in the post, shot 36 percent from three, sets good screens, is a good defender and role player, and just seems to have no holes in his game. That versatility makes him incredibly valuable.

Horford is going to get paid this summer — not max money, but close enough to it to make him happy — and some team is going to get a lot better when they do it.