While Gordon Hayward’s injury was certainly a cruel twist of fate, it could have been a lot worse. It’s not of the season-ending variety, nor did it occur at a time that puts Hayward’s status in doubt for the stretch run or playoffs. He’ll miss some time, but he’ll likely be sitting there under the tree come Christmas morning.
Think back to the pit in your stomach (and Paul Pierce’s reaction to Doris Burke) when the Rajon Rondo news came out on a Sunday afternoon in January of 2013. Or, if you were around, for Larry Bird’s Achilles in 1988. Those injuries pulled the proverbial rug out from under an entire season.
Then, there were ailments that left a star’s status in doubt. This surfaced a couple of years ago, with fans speculating on the return of Hayward from a broken ankle and Kyrie Irving from having some wire taken out of his surgically repaired left knee. Neither happened. Kevin Garnett’s injury hung over the 2009 Celtics, while Bill Walton tried to get back in 1987 but wasn't the same. It’s tantalizing to be so close to having a roster you know can compete at the highest level, but never get the pieces together in time.
Brad Stevens found a “silver lining” to the situation, hoping the time off will make Hayward more fresh at the end of the season. After two consecutive summers of grinding to get his game back, a little rest may not be all that bad.
But will the recipe change while Hayward is out? As fun as it is to have four guys who can go off for 25 points on any given night, the members of that quartet have the tendency to catch fire in the absence of others. Having all of the primary perimeter scorers healthy, happy and productive is a best-case scenario for Celtics fans who observed last year's debacle, but there will be lingering concerns about how the pieces fit.
Next Man Up
How will Brad Stevens respond to the loss of a key player? The coach has given some hints across the first eight quarters of basketball without Hayward.
Marcus Smart joined the starting lineup and has played more minutes (72) than any other Celtic over the last two games. That turns the focus to the bench, where Stevens is searching for the hot rookie hand on a given night. Javonte Green, whose defensive toolbox and attacking mentality on the offensive end could replace some of what was lost, totaled 13 minutes in each of the Spurs and Mavericks games before taking a step back on Wednesday night.
The Wizards game wound up being Carsen Edwards’ (18 points in 20 minutes) best regular season outing as a Celtic. Edwards has the biggest potential to lead the second unit in scoring. To stabilize a boat full of rookies, Stevens has dished minutes to Brad Wanamaker (a season-high 21 Wednesday), who has responded with his most consistent play in green.
If two out of the Walker/Tatum/Brown troika is on and the big men are able to hold their own, bench production will be a luxury. But some nights, it will be a necessity.
The Road Ahead
The six weeks without Hayward - 19 games, during which the team is already 2-0 - won’t feature many days off, particularly in the early part of that run. Boston plays three games in four nights on the west coast, and has consecutive days off just once between now and December 2nd (National Mutt Day - shout to my best friend Lucy). They will be flying back from Denver on one of those days.
It helps that the C’s catch Golden State without Steph Curry and Sacramento without De’Aaron Fox. There’s a good chance they can run their winning streak to 11 games. But they should be wary of a letdown, particularly with upcoming contests in Phoenix, LA and in the Mile High City.
The Celtics have produced 11 winning streaks of five games or more during the Brad Stevens era. Their cumulative record in the five games following each streak is 23-27 (one of the streaks came at the end of the season). While one can expect some regression to the mean, there have been plenty of slides to follow impressive runs.
Unlike their TD Garden roommates, the Bruins, who’ve ceded nearly all ground they built up during an 11-1-2 start by dropping four consecutive games (luckily the NHL gives participation trophy points for overtime losses), the Celtics would do well to capitalize on early-season injuries to other East contenders (Ben Simmons, Kyle Lowry, Khris Middleton) and give themselves a cushion with Hayward out.
Just 10 games into the season, Edwards became the 14th rookie to score 18 or more in a game with a strong showing against the Wizards. More proof that in today’s NBA, everybody eats. It was a track meet, and Edwards' haircut isn't the only thing that separates him from Coby White at this stage of the season. But it was a potential building block for a young player still seeking his footing at this level.