By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s impossible not to think about Gordon Hayward’s devastating ankle injury when you look back on Boston’s season-opening loss to the Cavaliers, but the team is handling it as well as they can.
Their thoughts and prayers will be with Hayward as he goes through a lengthy recovery, and even though there is a microcosm of hope that the forward may be able to return near the end of the regular season, it’s probably best to consider him out of the year.
It’s a gigantic blow, a heartbreaking start to what should have been a promising beginning for the new-look Celtics. Gone are the 20 points and six rebounds you could pencil in for Hayward on a nightly basis, not to mention his impact on the offense as a whole.
But right now, all the Celtics can do is move forward. They don’t have much time to reflect on what could have been, or what over think what is next. What’s next is their home opener Wednesday night against the Milwaukee Bucks.
That doesn’t give head coach Brad Stevens much time to think, or devise a new plan for a team he had to devise a new plan for just two months ago. It’s a truly unique challenge for a man who has gotten better and better in each of his four years in the NBA. This year will be the boy wonder’s biggest challenge of them all, a challenge that erupted even more just six minutes into the new season.
But there’s only so much Stevens can do with his rotations and whiteboard. What’s going to be the difference between the Celtics being a middling team and a threat in the Eastern Conference is players stepping up and taking advantage of their new opportunity in an expanded role. It’s a somewhat scary premise for a team with so much young talent, but it’s the reality the Celtics face.
The Celtics were going to rely heavily on the following players anyways this season, but that dependency has increased tenfold since Hayward was taken off the floor on a stretcher.
Irving probably didn’t want it to go down this way, but now he has a team all to his own. That’s not to say he won’t have help from his supporting cast, but the All Star guard is Boston’s only true threat on the offensive front.
Kyrie played like a man possessed in the fourth quarter on Tuesday and finished with 22 points. He had a last-second look to send the game into overtime, but came up short. He’ll have a lot more of those looks going forward, and he likely have to repeat Tuesday night’s performance 81 more times if the Celtics want to still be considered a contender in the East.
The fourth-year guard was on a mission anyways, especially heading towards restricted free agency this summer after the C’s failed to reach a contract extension with him ahead of the season. He’s always taken his role off of the bench with great pride, providing Boston with a frustrating defender to throw at just about everyone on the opposing team. His offensive game looks improved as well, despite some of those exasperating hoists still part of his game.
Smart played 35 minutes against the Cavs, which will probably be the norm for him going forward. He may even see some time in Boston’s starting five depending on matchups.
What’s important with Smart is he doesn’t try to do too much, especially on offense, and continues to do what he does best on a much more consistent basis.
Just 20 years old, the second-year forward looks primed for a breakout season. And the Celtics are going to need that from Brown, both on the offensive and defensive end.
Brown didn’t look phased in the second half against the Cavs on either end of the floor, and he didn’t shy away from taking the big shot at the end of the game. He missed a corner three, which Irving was able to corral and put up his own last-second attempt.
The Celtics are going to need Brown to continue his maturation, and at an even more rapid speed the rest of the way. He’s still going to make mistakes along the way, but the Celtics should feel confident that Brown is up to the challenge.
Tatum is a 19-year-old rookie, and played that part in the first half on Tuesday. He looked like a deer in headlights in the opening minutes of his NBA career, but he stayed aggressive and made plays for Boston in the second half. But even though LeBron James emphatically rejected his first career shot, Tatum never shied away from attacking the basket and finished the night with 14 points (12 of which came in the second half) and 10 rebounds.
There was some hope that Boston’s mix of established talent and youth would allow Tatum to ease into his career. That’s now off of the table, and he’ll be relied upon to contribute every night.
No pressure on the rookie. No pressure at all.
Morris will be sidelined for a few more games with soreness in his right knee, but Stevens is going to be calling his number quite a bit when he returns. The forward was expected to round out Boston’s starting five to start the season (Tatum essentially took his spot on Tuesday), and that’s pretty much a foregone conclusion with Hayward now out.
Morris won’t be asked to score 20 a night, but Boston is going to need him to play some strong defense and pull down some rebounds.
Danny Ainge went into the season with just 14 players on the Boston roster, keeping an open spot for one of those “Break Glass In Case Of Emergency” types of scenarios. Well, here we are.
There is no shortage of veteran free agents hoping to find employment somewhere, but one name stands out in particular: Gerald Green.
The four-fingered assassin enjoyed stretches of success off of the Celtics bench last season, and you could even argue that he was their “secret weapon” when the team was down 0-2 to the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. If the Celtics want someone who already knows Stevens’ system, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring the 31-year-old swingman back to help fill the void.