The luster of Sunday’s Celtics matchup with the Charlotte Hornets took a major hit Saturday when the Hornets announced forward Gordon Hayward would miss at least a month with a right foot sprain sustained in Friday’s win over Indiana .
That means Hayward will not make his long-awaited return to Boston after opting out of his Celtics contract and signing a four-year, $120 million deal with the Hornets.
Hayward had been surprisingly durable in his first season in Charlotte, playing in 44 of the Hornets’ first 48 games before the injury. And he had returned to his previous form, averaging 19.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists with Charlotte pushing for a playoff spot.
Hayward sustained the injury when he stepped on the foot of Indiana center Myles Turner. He left the game after playing 19 minutes.
The Hornets will enter this key game against the Celtics without Hayward and Rookie of the Year candidate LaMelo Ball, who has missed the past few weeks after wrist surgery. Still, the two teams will meet three times over the next 24 days in games that could determine playoff seeding.
The Celtics, after their win over the Houston Rockets, are eighth in the Eastern Conference but just 1½ games behind the Hornets for the fourth seed, making these final four games of this homestand critical to the Celtics opportunity for home-court advantage in the first round and avoiding the play-in tournament.
Charlotte is still filled with weapons, including former Celtic Terry Rozier, who is having a career season with 20.3 points, 4 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 41 percent shooting from the 3-point line. Without two of their leading three scorers, the Hornets will be severely shorthanded while the Celtics are also dealing with injuries.
The club listed Jaylen Brown has questionable with a left knee contusion while Tristan Thompson will miss his 12th consecutive game being in COVID-19 protocol.
Fournier shows impact
Friday served as a breakout game for newcomer Evan Fournier, who scored 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting after going 3 of 16 in his first two games.
The Celtics desperately need Fournier to emerge as a reliable third scoring option behind Brown and Jayson Tatum.
“I’m sure he feels much better,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of Fournier. “He doesn’t look bothered by the fact that he started in that first game 0 for 10. The human side of a trade is not easy. Even though Evan was excited to get here and be here it was still a rocky road. It was great for all of us to see that for him. We all want those (new) guys to feel more comfortable every minute.”
Fournier said he wasn’t going to overreact to his rough start.
“I’ve played in this league nine years and I know what I am capable of doing,” he said. “That first game against New Orleans was not going to define who I am. I’ve said many times I’m going to try to impact winning as much as I can. That’s going to be my challenge, to understand how to play with the guys.”
Quality wins needed
The win over the Rockets was much needed but the Rockets are one of the league’s worst teams missing John Wall and Eric Gordon. The question is whether the Celtics can consistently beat quality teams and the Hornets, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks are here within the next four days.
“I think the narrative around our team in the past two games was a little worse than how we played,” Stevens said. “We had a tough stretch in that Dallas game but we also got beat by ridiculous shot making. We had the same thing in the New Orleans game. They had their best shot-making night of the year. We had time to reflect on that. We had time to circle back to what we thought was most important as a team and say, ‘ok this is what we need to do to be a little bit better, to put our signature on the last 24 games.’ Let’s see if we can’t find a time to peak here soon.”