ORLANDO — Unfortunate events keep occurring in Gordon Hayward’s Celtics tenure, this time a Grade 3 sprain of his right ankle, which he sustained in the fourth quarter of Monday’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers. The injury will keep Hayward out for at least a month, meaning he likely wouldn’t return until the conference finals.
The Celtics are a better team with Gordon Hayward healthy and playing well, but they can be successful without him. Boston was 34-18 during the regular season with Hayward, and 14-6 without him, so it has the personnel to play well, but it’s going to require a collective effort.
Hayward has never been the player in Boston that he was in Utah because of injuries, but he turned himself into a capable distributor who can be effective from midrange and behind the 3-point arc. He can take pressure off Kemba Walker, who can at times play off the ball, and rebound effectively.
So, it’s a significant loss. Since breaking his left leg and missing all but five minutes of his first season with the Celtics, Hayward has become a polarizing figure in Boston, with some fans irritated he was never going to revert back to his All-Star form, with others rooting for his success, hoping he would blend into a formidable frontcourt of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum and accept a secondary role.
He did the latter, and he filled the Celtics’ needs in providing another capable playmaker. Players who average 18 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists are not common, but the Celtics have enough depth to compensate for Hayward’s absence.
The key player, of course, is Marcus Smart, who has struggled here in the bubble. Since his 23-point performance in the opener of the seeding games against the Bucks, Smart is averaging 6.1 points on 20.4 percent shooting. While Smart has earned a reputation for being a fearless shooter who is always a couple of 3-pointers from snapping a slump, his offensive struggles are a concern.
But slumps don’t affect Smart’s confidence. He is an essential part of the Celtics’ arsenal, a bulldog with a mean streak who will boost the team’s starting lineup defensively.
“[My mentality] is the same, my role is different, starting and coming off the bench, but energy-wise it’s the same,” Smart said Tuesday. “Starting doesn’t require me to really be more of an offensive threat. So I can spend most of my energy on the defensive, as opposed to coming off the bench I have to be a little more assertive.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens felt badly about Hayward sustaining yet another injury, but the 76ers, who have lost All-Star Ben Simmons to season-ending knee surgery, won’t show any sympathy. They view it as an opportunity to seize Game 2. So, Stevens has to devise a game plan to accentuate the strengths of the players who remain.
Players such as Smart, Semi Ojeleye (who didn’t play in Game 1), and rookie Romeo Langford will be pressed into action, making the Celtics better defensively but weakened offensively.
“The bottom line is it doesn’t matter who you start, it’s how you rotate guys,” Stevens said. “Our best players will still play the most minutes and we’ll figure it out from there. I think one of the things you could even see [Monday] is beyond Kemba, Jaylen, Jayson, and Marcus, guys could play a lot or a little. And a bunch of guys might get a bunch of opportunities in games.”
The drawback to Smart’s return to the starting lineup is it weakening the bench. The Celtics’ reserves scored 8 points on 3-for-15 shooting in Game 1. Stevens is either going to have to use his starters more or devise different combinations where starters and reserves play together so the Celtics don’t go into scoring droughts.
A 5:05 scoreless stretch nearly cost Boston Game 1. So, the Celtics could use a bench boost from Ojeleye, Robert Williams, Enes Kanter or Brad Wanamaker. In the Celtics’ most impressive win without Hayward this season, a 19-point home victory against the Heat, Brown, Tatum, and Walker combined for 78 points and the defense stifled Miami after the first quarter.
If the Celtics defend better than they did in Game 1, and they were pretty good most of that game, they should be able to succeed without Hayward. But it’s going take a collective effort, better offense from Smart, and some production from unexpected sources who have been waiting to prove themselves.
“I think any time you lose a really good player that you play through a lot, you’re going to have to compensate as a group,” said Stevens. “That’s what we have to do. So I’m convinced that as a group collectively that we can be really, really good. Not one person is going to replace all the things that he does. We just have to replace him as a team and I feel confident that we can do that.”