Opening night overshadowed
The much awaited opening night showdown between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics quickly took an unfortunate turn after recently acquired Celtic Gordon Hayward suffered a freak injury during the first quarter that instantly reminded fans of Paul George’s open tibia-fibula fracture in 2014 and Kevin Ware’s gruesome lower right leg accident in 2013.
There was no need to watch the video of the injury itself to know how bad it was. Just look at the players’ reactions. The entire league was as stunned as everyone in attendance at the Quicken Loans Arena, and support for Hayward poured instantly. The Cavaliers prevailed 102-99, but it never felt like much of a victory. The 27-year-old's injury was that big of a loss to everyone involved.
While Hayward’s speedy recovery is obviously the top priority here, there is no denying that the injury sent shockwaves around the league, especially throughout the Eastern Conference. The Celtics, who trotted out their new lineup for about seven minutes in the first quarter, looked like a serious threat to the Cavs. It may be a small sample size, but look what Boston did during the second half in Hayward’s absence. They overcame a 16-point halftime deficit to storm back and take the lead in the final quarter, only to be reminded that LeBron James is still LeBron James.
Where to from here for Boston?
The new-look Celtics now look vulnerable, especially with up-and-coming teams such as the Bucks and the Wizards looking to have their place in the table. The Raptors could also capitalize on this, with continuity being their greatest weapon.
So where do the Celtics go from here? Losing Hayward, their best two-way player, could potentially end their title contention hopes just like that. But should they give up entirely? The answer lies solely on one person: Kyrie Irving.
The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor had this to say regarding the aftermath of the Hayward injury and Kyrie. With the current situation of their team, it isn’t a matter of options anymore. It’s now a matter of necessity. Kyrie’s transformation from one of the league’s most powerful offensive forces to MVP candidacy is pivotal to Boston’s chances of attempting to topple LeBron and the Cavaliers as the kings of the East.
The loss against the Cavs was tough, but Boston gave the Cavs problems even in Hayward’s absence, thanks in no small part to Irving’s play. He continued his preseason showing as a more willing passer, dishing out ten assists with just two turnovers.
There is hope
Losing the 2017 All-Star unquestionably hurts Boston’s depth and versatility on both offense and defense, but it also means that Kyrie is now undoubtedly the main man for the Celtics’ offensive sets. The four-time All-Star has been thrust into the Isaiah Thomas role a season ago, when IT4 enjoyed career highs in PPG, FG% and eFG%. He isn’t totally without help, though, as Boston’s two top prospects in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum showed tons of promise in the face of adversity.
Brown, fresh off an All-Rookie Second Team selection from last year, looked fearless driving aggressively and made a majority of the right cuts and slashes against the Cavs. He finished the game as the leading scorer for the Celtics with 25 points and six boards on 47.8% shooting, while acting as the primary replacement for Hayward, an All-Star talent. Brad Stevens couldn’t have asked for more from his second-year forward.
Jayson Tatum also had a solid debut performance, with 14 points and 10 boards on 41.7% shooting. He became the first Celtic to notch a double-double during their NBA debut since Larry Bird in 1979. Factoring in the horrifying injury to his teammate and the insurmountable task of guarding LeBron, the 19-year-old showed why he deserved a starting spot, despite starting out a little shaky.
Boston is not entirely hopeless, and if there’s any silver lining to Hayward’s injury, it’s that Stevens isn’t short of wing players and they could all get a shot in the rotation. An increased role from Marcus Smart is inevitable as he enters restricted free agency, so maybe he takes the next step as he’s shown flashes in the preseason. They still have Al Horford, whose unifying presence won’t go unnoticed.
Prior to the Irving trade, Hayward was arguably the biggest news in basketball, and for good reason. He just came off the best season of his career, leading the Utah Jazz to a playoff spot and reaching the second round before losing to the eventual champions Golden State. He’s also just 27 years old.
This is clearly a crushing blow to the Celtics and their fans, whose anticipation and optimism had been overflowing since they netted the hottest property in free agency. Their expectations amplified after gaining Irving and, suddenly, talk about knocking off the Cavaliers in the playoffs materialized.
What a difference one game makes. Their newly constructed team is now confronted with a gigantic tragedy so early in the season. Now, all eyes turn to Irving, and to some extent, Stevens, as they face the overwhelming task of adjusting on the fly and redefining a system that prominently featured Hayward. Now, the entire Boston faithful hope they deliver.
Can the Celtics still top the Cavs in the East? Comment below!