BOSTON – Moments before the Boston Celtics tipped off their home opener against Milwaukee Wednesday night, veteran guard Marcus Smart took a microphone, walked out to center court and advised fans to look up toward the TD Garden jumbotron for a message from a special guest.
The members of the crowd collectively tilted their heads skyward and began erupting into deafening applause. Displayed on the video board was Gordon Hayward, who was shown sitting in his hospital bed at New England Baptist Hospital.
The star wing was about to enter the operating room to surgically repair his dislocated left ankle and broken left tibia – which he suffered less than 24 hours earlier in Cleveland – but first, he had a few words to share.
“I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who has kept me in their thoughts and prayers,” Hayward said with a heartfelt smile. “I’m going to be all right. It’s hurting me that I can’t be there for the home opener; I want nothing more just to be with my teammates and walk out onto that floor tonight. I’ll be supporting you guys from here. I wish you the best of luck. Kill it tonight.”
Over the next two and a half hours, the Celtics did their best to fulfill Hayward’s wish. But they ultimately fell to Milwaukee, 108-100, dropping their record to 0-2 on the season.
The hard truth that the Celtics have come to understand is that it’s going to take some time to adjust to life without Hayward on the court. Yes, he only played three preseason games and half of a quarter of one regular season game; but he was a major part of Boston’s planning heading into the season.
Having to alter those plans so suddenly and unexpectedly is a mountainous obstacle that can’t be climbed overnight.
“You know how much ‘G’ meant to this team and means to this team,” said Kyrie Irving, who tallied 17 points, four rebounds, three assists and three steals in the loss. “Without him on the floor creating those opportunities that we were going over in practice and that we saw in preseason and even in the first game, that’s a big void to fill.”
Not having Hayward places extra pressure on Irving, who, at the moment, is the team’s lone high-volume scorer. This means other players are going to need to take on heavier scoring loads so that the offense can flow smoothly.
Second-year forward Jaylen Brown has already expressed a desire to take on such a role, and he’s done an admirable job so far. The 20-year-old has led the Celtics in scoring during both of their games, having logged 25 points Tuesday night in Cleveland, and 18 more Wednesday night against Milwaukee.
“I’m just being aggressive,” said Brown. “I’m just trying to take the pressure off of Al (Horford) and Kyrie and those guys, just so they can have it a little easier… It’s about me being aggressive and (rookie) Jayson (Tatum) being aggressive – that’s going to help us all.”
Terry Rozier also seems eager to take on a more demanding role, as he led the second unit Wednesday night with 15 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two steals. He says the team is trying to do its best to move on without Hayward, but at the same time, he acknowledges that it will be a process.
“This is the first game without him. It’s going to take time,” said Rozier. “The rotations are going to be a little different, but I’m pretty sure that’s what Brad (Stevens) is good at. He’ll make it work.”
Boston’s coach will have his hands full trying to mix and match rotations in an effort to fill Hayward’s void. He’s already had to dig deep into the second unit in search of answers, having handed out key minutes to rookies Abdel Nader, Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis.
“I’m hopeful that we can find the right combinations,” said Stevens. “We obviously didn’t anticipate going this far into the bench this early, but I thought some of those guys did a pretty good job. I thought (Nader did a good job; I thought that Semi provided some good minutes defensively. And then I thought Theis, when he came in, did a pretty good job. The part that we’ve got to find is a combination that works all together, especially when we go to the bench right now.”
Irving is confident that in time the Celtics will be able to figure out the most beneficial rotations. He’s confident that they’ll be able to move past Hayward’s absence and find a way to operate smoothly and efficiently as a whole.
It will be an upward climb, but one that should begin to level out over time – so long as the players maintain their faith in one another.
“It’s time to just figure it out moment to moment,” said Irving. “We’ll be alright. I’ve had the unique opportunity to be in situations that test your character, and this is one of those times. We just have to continue to be there for one another, look each other in the eye and be honest, and make sure that our preparation is perfect.”
If the Celtics approach it that way as a group, they should be fine. As long as they remain patient and confident in each other’s abilities, they should be able to fulfill Hayward’s wish by killing it on the court while he supports them from the sidelines.