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Orfao: Hayward’s unfortunate injury suddenly reshapes the Celtics’ season

  • Boston’s Gordon Hayward is carried away in a stretcher during the Celtics’ season-opening setback at Cleveland. AP

  • Kyrie Irving (left) and Gordon Hayward look on from the bench during a preseason game earlier this month. Irving will be playing without Hayward’s help for the foreseeable future. AP

  • Boston Celtics' Gordon Hayward before their preseason NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers in Boston Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson) Winslow Townson—AP



Monitor staff
Thursday, October 19, 2017

It took only five minutes for 105 days’ worth of anticipation to disintegrate.

Boston’s expectations ballooned on July 4 when Gordon Hayward agreed to a four-year, $128 million deal to join the Celtics. Shortly after tipping off his inaugural season in Boston’s green and white on Tuesday, the All-Star forward suffered a ghastly injury.

The Celtics have announced it’s a fractured tibia and dislocated ankle, but it didn’t take a doctor to immediately diagnose Hayward was facing a long road to recovery. While most of us can’t relate to the life of a professional athlete, we could all feel for Hayward in that moment.

Tuesday was opening night on national TV against his new team’s greatest rival featuring the game’s greatest player. It was his first chance to prove he was worth every penny of that gaudy contract. It was the first time playing alongside his former college coach, Brad Stevens, since Hayward’s half-court prayer rimmed out and Butler fell just short against Duke in the 2010 NCAA championship.

The plan was to finish what they started in college: Chase down an elusive championship that was just inches away at Butler. Five minutes, two points and one rebound later, the trajectory of the season – and Hayward’s career – altered.

An official timetable for his recovery hasn’t been reported, and we’re all hoping for a speedy and full rehabilitation – he won even more fans with a video message before Wednesday’s home opener – but the chances he makes an impact this season appear dim.

As for the Celtics, those ballooned expectations deflated faster than a football on a cold January night.

Although anyone living in reality should not have expected a championship parade next summer, the gap between Boston and Golden State has now widened even more. Still, the Celtics remain one of the most intriguing teams in the NBA. We’ll continue to wonder what the season might have looked like with a healthy Hayward, but here’s some reasons to keep watching:

LeBron vs. Kyrie for MVP?

Kyrie Irving was already going to be a star in Boston, but with Hayward’s 20-plus points per game on the sideline, Boston’s new point guard will have to handle more of the offensive load, which should give him a boost in the MVP race.

Keep in mind, the individual numbers for reigning MVP Russell Westbrook and runner-up James Harden should fall thanks to the offseason arrival of All-Star teammates, and Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant will once again steal MVP votes from each other.

Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo could challenge for the award, but the West is so loaded it’s hard to see a player emerging from the pack.

Irving isn’t the best player in the league, but if he can successfully shoulder the burden of Hayward’s absence, the circumstances could pave the way for an entertaining MVP race between Irving and teammate-turned-rival LeBron James.

Smart decision

Marcus Smart should see a decent bump in minutes due to the hole left by Hayward, and this will give Danny Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations, even more time to evaluate the most pivotal season in Smart’s career.

The Celtics failed to reach an agreement on a contract extension before the season with the fourth-year guard, who is the longest-tenured player on the roster. That means he’ll be a restricted free agent next summer, where a panicky general manager to be named later can offer a colossal contract, putting pressure on Ainge to match the deal or let Smart walk.

The physical combo guard played well on Tuesday with 12 points, nine rebounds, three assists, two blocks and two steals in 35 minutes. Expect a productive, well-rounded year out of Smart and an incredibly tough decision when the offseason rolls around.

The future is now

Despite the early devastation on opening night, the Celtics delivered an encouraging effort in the 102-99 loss to the Cavaliers. Boston erased a big deficit, took a late lead and gave Cleveland everything it could handle after the initial shock of the injury wore off.

A large part of that effort was thanks to the 2016 No. 3 pick Jaylen Brown (25 points, six rebounds) and the 2017 No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum (14 points, 10 rebounds, five assists). The young duo is the most influential factor in how successful the Celtics can be without Hayward.

So far, so good.

Brown showed he wouldn’t shy away from an elevated role with a team-high 23 shots from the floor that led to his career-high 25 points. Brown’s 2-for-9 showing from 3-point range and zero assists show there’s plenty of room to grow, but the physical tools, early signs of maturity and willingness to compete should produce a breakout year.

For those who haven’t heard, Tatum is clearly the next Larry Bird given the identical stat lines in their rookie debuts. Even when we put the ridiculous hyperbole aside, it’s obvious this kid can play and he’ll undoubtedly progress under the tutelage of Coach Stevens.

It took only five minutes for Boston’s season to veer off course, but it would be wise to stay on the bandwagon after an 0-2 start.

This season will still be a fun ride.

(Jason Orfao can be reached at 369-3338, jorfao@cmonitor.com or on Twitter
@Jason Orfao.)