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The Celtics are a year away, again

Kyrie Irving’s injury limits their chances, but the future is bright in Boston.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Kyrie Irving had surgery on Saturday to remove two screws in his left knee. That will keep him out 4-5 months, which means the playoffs. Irving should be back in time for training camp this fall. The timing is unfortunate, but as Celtics coach Brad Stevens said a half-dozen times on Friday night before a game against the Bulls, “It’s out of of our control.”

What now? Now we LIST.

The Celtics are a year away, but we already knew that. Irving’s surgery and recovery window simply clarifies their timetable. Even before the news, the general consensus was that the Celtics were not winning a title this season.

That consensus was reached the moment Gordon Hayward fractured his tibia mere moments into the season. That perception was further solidified after a rash of injuries left valuable big man Daniel Theis out for the season and Marcus Smart on the sidelines until later in the postseason.

If anything, Kyrie’s absence should put to rest any lingering speculation over a dramatic Hayward return. One never says never in this league, and there’s no doubt that Hayward would love to get back on the court as soon as possible. Really, though, what’s the rush?

The Celtics feel like they’re in excellent shape when a year away finally becomes the present. They expect Irving and Hayward to be back healthy in time for training camp, and they will return almost everyone from a team that won 55 games even without Kyrie for a quarter of the season.

Greg Monroe, Aron Baynes, and Shane Larkin will be unrestricted free agents this summer and Marcus Smart is heading for what could be an eventful restricted period. That’s four key contributors who won’t be under contract when the NBA calendar flips to 2018-19, but the remaining core is all safely under control.

The development path of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, along with Terry Rozier has accelerated. In that sense, this season has been a success.

Tatum won’t win Rookie of the Year, but there are some who feel like he has a chance to eventually become the top player in this class and a superstar in time. Brown has become a versatile and dependable starter with a high ceiling. (My favorite comp is Andre Iguodala, although that may be a tad optimistic. Whatever, don’t doubt Jaylen Brown.)

NBA: Boston Celtics at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Rozier is an enigma of an X-factor. He has taken the lead guard role and turned it into a nightly thrill ride full of explosive plays and disruptive defense. What he lacks is the experience and savvy that Irving brings to the equation, to say nothing of the shotmaking.

What we’ve learned this season is that Tatum, Brown, and Rozier are players in this league. We may have suspected that before the season started, but we know that now. All of that is crucial to the Celtics’ long-term development and planning.

Tatum, Brown, and Rozier are about to be thrown into the deep end of the postseason basketball pool, and that’s not a bad thing. Brown and Rozier have already gone through this to a degree, but not as starters. Tatum, of course, will be making his playoff debut.

You can learn about players in the postseason, but just as importantly, players can learn a lot about themselves. There is no better or tougher training ground than the postseason.

That’s kind of exciting, but whatever happens, this postseason will not define them. They have years ahead of them to make that happen.

This is still a 55-win team and there will be substantial pressure on Al Horford to perform during the postseason. Horford does so many things that don’t show up on the stat sheet and go under the radar. Primarily, he’s a phenomenal defender and a willing passer.

Both of those elements are crucial to the Celtics’ formula. Both are universally praised and also taken for granted. That’s what you get with Horford: He’s a phenomenal player, a fantastic teammate, and many people still want more from the big man.

If the Celtics are going to make any kind of headway in the postseason, Horford will also need to score and rebound at a high level. He can do both and he’ll need to do both, while also continuing to do all the little things that we’ve come to expect.

The best thing about Horford is that outside pressure doesn’t bother him. He’ll do what he thinks needs to be done. That should be enough, but it won’t keep his critics at bay. Again, none of that bothers him, so don’t let it stress you out.

Brad Stevens will come up with something, because that’s what Brad Stevens does. There may be no better in-game tactician at the moment than Stevens. That has been evident the last few months on a nightly basis. Expect to see the unexpected. Zones, four-and-five-guard lineups, Monroe playing the point … everything goes and nothing is off limits.

Make no mistake, Stevens would rather have all of his players available. The idea that he digs giving it the old college try is overblown. Still, his imagination is essential in times of turmoil.

It, also, will be kind of fun.

All bets are off on the Celtics now. They could lose in the first round or cobble together enough plays to sneak into the conference finals. That appears to be the ultimate ceiling, but they don’t look at it that way.

Marcus Morris, who has been a lifesaver, does not care about being a year away. Marcus Smart, who could return in time for the second round, absolutely does not care about being a year away. When healthy, Smart has been a game-changer for the C’s. Don’t discount his importance of he’s able to get back on the court.

This is their shot, and they’re going to take it. Over and over again. You want Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart on that 3-point line. It’s not like you have any choice.

The Celtics always seem to exist in a state of perpetual anticipation. Next year isn’t that far away, and next year means more chances to take big swings at even greater targets like Anthony Davis or hell, even Kawhi Leonard. That doesn’t seem likely this summer, but hey, you never know.

They are fortunate because Danny Ainge and his front office team have executed a strategy that allows for that kind of bold thinking. But next year is not now. Now is now. Maybe we should just see what they can do before waiting for next year. It will get here soon enough.