“Hayward has broken his leg.”
Five words. In just five words, an entire offseason of hype was crushed. The dreams of a fanbase were crushed. The titles hopes of the Boston Celtics were crushed.
Just five minutes and 15 seconds into the 2017-18 NBA season, TNT announcer Kevin Harlan spoke those five words, so deadpan, so empty, so void of emotion. You could feel the utter shock in Harlan’s voice, a shock shared by everyone watching in the arena and at home. The broadcast then cut to Gordon Hayward sitting visibly distraught on the court, mangled ankle crooked in the wrong direction.
A slow murmur settled over Quicken Loans Arena as Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, coaches, and fans looked on is dismay. The faces of disbelief and horror of players and fans alike told the story of the next couples minutes better than any words could. As Hayward was carried off the floor on a stretcher, reality began to set in for the Celtics. The game resumed, and the Cavs quickly pulled away. Boston found themselves down 10 after the first quarter, and 16 at halftime. Life without Gordon Hayward wasn’t looking good for the Celtics.
But in the second half, things took a drastic turn. Down 18 at one point in the third quarter, Boston clawed its way back into the game, outscoring the Cavs 33 to 18 in the third quarter. The game came down to the final minute when a Kevin Love three with 46 seconds left sealed the game for Cleveland. Thought the Celtics ended up losing, there were plenty of flashes that told Celtics fans not to give up on this season just yet.
Reason number one not to give up on the Celtics season: Jayson Tatum
Tatum’s NBA career got off to a really rocky start. His first shot was emphatically rejected by LeBron James, he was charged with a technical foul for a defensive three-second violation, and then called for a personal foul – all within a one-minute span. His first points didn’t come until there was 2:18 left in the second quarter and his first basket wasn’t until the second half.
Once he found his game, Tatum looked promising. He was five of six from the field in the second half and finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds, and three assists. His double-double is the first by a Celtics rookie in their NBA debut since some guy named Larry Bird. I’m told he was alright. There was one play in particular Celtics fans should get excited about. Midway through the third quarter, Tatum got the ball on the right wing in semi-transition. He took a hesitation dribble and then blew by his defender, LeBron James. Tatum absorbed the contact, finished with a push shot high off the glass, and drew a foul. He converted the and-one. This play showcases many of the skills that had scouts raving that Tatum was the most NBA-ready scorer in the last year’s draft: the ability to take defenders off the dribble, strength, finishing ability, and a soft touch at the free throw line. Remember: this was only his first game. He will be a treat to watch this season.
Reason number two not to give up on the Celtics season: Jaylen Brown
Jaylen Brown came to play this season. The number two overall pick from 2016 progressed nicely last season and was inserted into the starting lineup this year. Tuesday night, he proved he was ready to take on that role. He was so amped up that he actually threw his first dunk attempt off the back of the rim. Overexcitement aside, Brown was the most dynamic Celtic on the floor Tuesday night, and ultimately finished with a team-high 25 points, six rebounds, and two steals in 40 minutes of action.
When the Celtics drafted Brown, they knew developing his jump shot would be the key to making him a superstar. Out of California, Brown was already an elite athlete and an energetic perimeter defender, but shooting was an issue. He shot just 29% from three, and 65% from the stripe in his only year in college. If they could help Brown add a jump shot, Boston knew they would have a star. He showed marked improvement from game one to 82 last year and ended with a respectable 34% shooting from three, though on limited attempts. His free throw percentage was still down, only 69%.
Tuesday night, it looked like an offseason of work and the blessing of head coach Brad Stevens has instilled shooters confidence in Brown. He came out firing, as unbashful as Stephen Curry. Perhaps he was a little overexcited to show off his new toy, as he shot just two of nine from deep, but the confidence is something fans should be happy to see. Brown’s finishing ability, like in the play below, is reason enough for Celtics fans to get hyped about watching the 20-year-old Brown this season.
Reason number three not to give up on the Celtics season: Kyrie Irving/Terry Rozier backcourt
Before we delve into the newest backcourt duo in Boston, I just want to clarify – Kyrie Irving is not a bad defender, when he wants to be. As you can see in the play above, he’s a good on-ball defender, and he’s got quick hands. He, like pretty much all of the Cavs (yes, that includes LeBron James), has been guilty of not giving maximum effort on defense until about April over the last couple years. That being said, the Irving/Rozier combo is exciting for a couple reasons: defense, ability to play small, and offensive flexibility; more specifically, the ability to have all three of these advantages on the floor at the same time.
Rozier is a ballhawk. Its one of the big reasons why the Celtics drafted him, and it’s a big reason they felt comfortable losing Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, two of the better perimeter defenders in the league. The quickness of Irving and Rozier make this defensive combination deadly – and give Stevens flexibility to switch on guards, and possibly even experiment with traps and presses.
Playing Rozier and Irving also allows Stevens to go small, which with the Hayward and Marcus Morris injuries, the Celtics will be forced to do. With Rozier and Irving in the backcourt, Brown, who’s a big guard, or Smart, who play’s like a big guard, could slide over to the three. Add Tatum and Horford, and you are looking at a deadly small ball lineup.
My favorite thing about the Rozier/Irving combination is the flexibility it creates on offense. The truth is, no matter how much Irving wants to believe otherwise, Kyrie Irving is a not a true point guard. He’s not a floor general, and that’s not where he’s at his best. There’s a reason LeBron James was the primary ball-handler for Cleveland over the last three years – because that’s when the Cavs where at their best, not with Kyrie at the primary ball handler. One on one, there are only a handful of defenders in the league that can even challenge Irving. In order to get him into these situations, you need to put him and a defender on an island. On this Celtics team, specifically without Hayward, Kyrie will never be on an island with one defender as the primary ball handler. On the Cavs, teams were forced to throw a second guy at James, or at least shade the defense in his direction. Now with Boston, the defense will be shaded in Kyrie’s direction. Without Hayward to space the floor, defenses can collapse the paint, close driving lanes, and force the ball out of Kyrie’s hands.
Rozier can change this. He’s quick enough and crafty enough handling the ball to get by initial defenders and force help. This will open lanes for Kyrie to do what he does best. Obviously, this can’t be the case all the time. The Celtics do need Irving to run the point at times, especially on the pick and roll. But putting Rozier at the point could open up some interesting offensive options for Boston. In the play below, Rozier is handling the ball. He gets by his defender, Jeff Green, and forces help. He then kicks to Horford, who draws Irving’s man thanks to Rozier. Horford swings to a wide-open Irving, who gets a shooter’s roll and hits the three. This kind of ball movement will lead to a number of great scoring opportunities for Irving.
In the play below, Rozier is handling the ball. He gets by his defender, Jeff Green, and forces help. He then kicks to Horford, who draws Irving’s man thanks to Rozier. Horford swings to a wide-open Irving, who gets a shooter’s roll and hits the three. This kind of ball movement will lead to a number of great scoring opportunities for Irving.
The timetable for Hayward’s return is unknown, but don’t fret. The Eastern Conference is so bad, this Celtics team should have no trouble finding themselves in the postseason come April. And who knows, maybe Hayward is back by the end of the year. But in the meantime, there’s still plenty left to watch for this season.