We don’t need any more analysis of Gordon Hayward’s gruesome leg injury.
It’s unfortunate, unexplainable, and tough to watch, even if you’re not a Boston Celtics fan.
But the show must go on. And with 80 more regular-season games ahead of them, this group will have to find a way to keep playing at a high level without Hayward.
With Hayward, the C’s entered the season having the third-best odds to win the NBA Championship, behind Golden State and Cleveland. Those odds have now obviously taken a hit. But certainly not to the point where the intrigue-factor has been totally lost.
The Celtics still have their best player, Kyrie Irving. They still have Al Horford. They still have “contract year” Marcus Smart. And they still have a pair of top-three draft picks, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, ready to make their impression on the league.
Hayward’s absence makes the Celtics a worse team, but it also opens the door for younger, less-proven players like Smart, Brown, and Tatum to play a more prominent role. All three should be motivated by the opportunity. And an opportunity they’ll most definitely have.
Smart played 35 minutes off the bench Tuesday night in Cleveland, while Brown played 40 minutes as a starter and Tatum played 37 minutes as a starter.
Brown scored a team-high 25 points to go along with six rebounds and two steals. Tatum finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds, and three assists in his NBA debut. And Smart had 12 points, nine rebounds, three assists, two steals, and two blocks.
Even after Hayward’s devastating injury just five minutes into the season-opener, the Celtics had a chance to tie the game on the final possession, but missed multiple three-point attempts and lost to the Cavaliers, 102-99.
The result of the game seemed somewhat irrelevant afterwards. Everyone’s thoughts were with Hayward. Now, most thoughts are on “what could’ve been,” seeing just how good the Celtics looked in their second-half comeback.
Smart’s production should be expected. He’s a top-10 draft pick and this is his fourth year in the league. But Brown is just 20 years old, and Tatum is only 19.
Brown, in his rookie season last year, played in 78 regular-season games, making 20 starts, and averaging 17.2 minutes per game. He’d be in the Celtics’ starting lineup this year with or without Hayward. Still, going from 17 minutes a game his rookie year, to 40 minutes in the first game of his second season, at just 20 years old, is quite the jump.
That says more about Brown and his progression though, than it does about the depth of the team. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge had planned it this way with Brown. He sent Avery Bradley to Detroit for Marcus Morris after signing Hayward to a max deal. Then he ended up adding Jae Crowder to the Irving trade.
Not only did the Celtics feel comfortable with Brown in their 2017-18 starting lineup, they also wanted him to be in it.
As for Tatum, if Morris wasn’t injured to begin the season, we might not have seen the rookie in the starting lineup this soon. But now, you almost can’t take him out of it.
Smart was in the starting lineup in place of Hayward Wednesday night against Milwaukee. Even if he doesn’t remain in that starting lineup, having someone like him come off the bench can be a huge benefit for the C’s.
If Brown, Tatum, and Smart can play up to their top-10 lottery-pick potential, with Irving and Horford at the helm, then you’re telling me the Celtics can’t keep up with everyone else in the Eastern Conference? Please.
They can, and they will.
That’s not to say I’m picking them to knock off LeBron James and the Cavs in the conference finals. But you have to get there first.
And getting there is something the Celtics can still do, even without Hayward.
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