Cancel your hotels. Request a refund on those flights. Hit Legal Sea Foods next time you connect through Logan. The Celtics are not going to the NBA Finals.
I know, right — shocking. Boston’s chances at an improbable June run likely ended when Cleveland swapped out its roster of non-shooting, ill-equipped-to-play-alongside-LeBron James talent for better-shooting, James-friendly players at the trade deadline, and probably were buried when Daniel Theis went down for the season and Marcus Smart went out until at least the second round of the playoffs.
It’s definitely over now. Kyrie Irving is done for the season, a “minimally invasive” (the organization’s words), nothing-to-fear-here knee surgery last month giving way to Thursday’s announcement that Irving will undergo a maximally invasive (our words), kiss-the-season-goodbye operation that will remove the two screws that were drilled into his left kneecap three years ago. Boston chalks up the second surgery to a bacterial infection spotted at the site of the hardware, and, of course, cut and paste its standard all-is-well line (“The fracture in Irving’s patella has completely healed, and his knee remains structurally sound”) at the end of the official statement — right before noting that Irving’s recovery time is four-to-five months.
Is it? You have to be a real Green Teamer if you aren’t freaking out a little. Irving is 26, the knee is structurally sound, blah, blah, blah. I get it — plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Irving played 72 games for Cleveland last season and tacked on another 18 in the playoffs. He also started dragging that knee around before the All-Star break and will have two major knee surgeries in three years. That’s something.
Panic? Not yet. It’s smart for Irving to be proactive. Ask Isaiah Thomas. Even the fiercest Boston advocates, the most vocal Cleveland critics, the ready-to-declare-the-Celtics-conference-kingpins-in-November pundits (seriously, Michael Lee — control yourself) knew this team had a ceiling. Get past the Raptors, knock off the Cavs and what was waiting was a backside-kicking from Golden State or Houston in the Finals. The Boston Era — if there is one — begins next season, when Gordon Hayward is back, when Jayson Tatum can buy beer, when wunderkind Brad Stevens has an elite roster to work with.
Being first-round fodder isn’t fun, but this team doesn’t collect conference title trophies anyway.
With Irving shelved — damaged goods until proved otherwise — Boston’s status as Cleveland’s heir is in danger. With Irving, the Celtics are lethal. If there were any doubt Irving could thrive outside James’ shadow, it’s gone. His numbers this year (24.4 points/5.1 assists) mirrored last year (25.2/5.8) and he did it shooting a tidy 49.1 percent from the floor — nearly two points higher than last season. The Celtics are the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, and Irving was the driving force behind it.
Now think about what could be next season. In October, Hayward and Irving giddily gushed about the sets Stevens was drawing up for them. Al Horford is an All-Star — and having the best 3-point shooting season of his career. Kawhi, er, Tatum and Jaylen Brown — that’s a column for another day — will be a year older. No team in the conference will have more offensive firepower.
All that hinges on a healthy Irving, and it says here it’s foolish to blindly assume Irving will come to camp next fall with his problems behind him. Boston can ease Irving back into it. Terry Rozier (a 17.3-point-per-game scorer as a starter this season) is under contract and Smart, a restricted free agent, could be back. Irving averaged the fewest minutes this season (32.2) since his rookie year, and the Celtics’ aforementioned firepower will ease his burden.
But this is a knee, a now thrice-operated-on knee, and one that has yet to be made quite right. Boston believed it resolved Irving’s issues last month, and seems sure yanking the screws out of the knee this weekend will do the trick. Maybe it will — players have bounced back from worse. But as the Celtics’ rebuild officially ends (thanks, Nets picks) and their championship window opens, Irving’s health stands as the reason it could be an extended one — or why it quickly could be slammed shut.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Player breaks up no-hitter by breaking unwritten rule
• Freakishly strong athlete has NFL teams’ attention
• Jeff Passan: Rockies star’s deal shows how much MLB has changed
• ESPN cuts to commercial at worst possible time