Celtics' youth will determine how far they can go after losing an All-Star talent in Hayward to a grisly ankle injury.
The figurative balloon that was carrying the Boston Celtics’ aspirations and floating high in the sky ahead of the new season was punctured in mere minutes of the games finally counting.
But while in the immediate aftermath of Gordon Hayward’s ghastly ankle injury it felt as if all the air had been let out, that balloon hasn’t fully popped, even if it is now harmlessly falling back down to Earth.
Make no mistake. Boston were relying heavily on Hayward to transition into a new era – one built upon the pillars of the All-Star wing and fellow newcomer Kyrie Irving. His absence, which could be for the entire season as he recovers from a dislocated ankle and fractured tibia, is as undeniably painful as it was to watch.
Yet moments like those force us to cling to any positives and have a greater perspective, as difficult as that may initially be.
And the first positive appears to be that Hayward has avoided a career-threatening injury. For as mangled as his lower leg looked – if you could stomach more than the initial glimpse – Hayward is reportedly dealing with a clean break and has avoided any ligament or blood vessel damage.
Doctors and non-doctors alike will have their own opinions as to how long that will keep him on the shelf, so it’s pointless to speculate until we hear any official word from Boston and their medical team. But even if there’s a sliver of hope that Hayward could return before the playoffs begin, as there seems to be considering the aforementioned early reports, Boston’s situation begins to look slightly less daunting.
Even if we set aside any optimism and resign ourselves to a reality in which Hayward misses the entire season, the bottom hasn’t completely fallen out for his team.
The Celtics still have Irving, who is arguably their best player, and someone who has embraced the great expectations that have been placed on his shoulders.
They also still have the perennially underrated Al Horford, who may be the most important piece of the offense due to the spacing, playmaking and overall cohesion he brings to the table.
More than anything though, Hayward’s injury creates a wealth of opportunities for the Celtics’ young foursome: Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
Smart came into the season – as cliché as it sounds – in the best shape of his life after slimming down to regain quickness. His bulldog defence has never been questioned, but he’s made strides on the other end of floor. More is expected and Smart, in a contract year, won’t be lacking motivation.
Rozier, meanwhile, has steadily improved over his two years to earn more trust from coach Brad Stevens. He’s also a disruptive defender and a sneaky rebounder whose biggest room for growth comes with the ball in his hands.
The real burden left behind, however, will fall on Brown and to a lesser extent Tatum.
The pair of third overall draft picks started the opener – an impressive feat considering they’re 20 and 19, respectively, and were going up against LeBron James.
It’s been a small sample size, but both have already shown great potential for the major roles they’re likely to occupy this season.
Reaching the Eastern Conference Finals again is still an attainable goal for Boston. Their ceiling has been lowered but they have no choice but to go on. All is not lost, even if it feels like it is.