When the Celtics arrived in the Orlando bubble last July to resume the season following a four-month pause because of COVID-19, coach Brad Stevens wasn’t sure what to expect. But then his team found a rhythm in its seeding games, winning five of six before sitting its starters in the finale against the Wizards.
Gordon Hayward was at the center of that surge before he sprained his right ankle in the playoff opener against the 76ers. He missed that series and the conference semifinals against the Raptors, and was clearly not fully recovered when he returned in Game 3 of the conference finals against the Heat.
“I thought Gordon was terrific here last year,” Stevens said. “Obviously the ankle injury was not great timing in the playoffs. But I’ve said this many times, I don’t know if I’ve said it publicly as much, but I thought when we were ending the seeding games that was as good of a team playing basketball as I’ve coached here. That gave us a lot of optimism heading into last year’s playoffs in the bubble and he was a big part of that.”
The Celtics lost to Miami, and last fall Hayward signed a four-year deal with the Hornets. He was in the midst of an All-Star caliber season before spraining his right foot in Charlotte’s win against the Pacers on Friday, and he is expected to miss at least four weeks.
“He just makes the right play for people,” Stevens said, “and he’s a guy that you see the young players, both with us and Charlotte, have a chance to grow and really improve, because he can make the right play for people, makes the game easier for people.”
Second-year wing Romeo Langford made his long-awaited season debut. Langford missed the first half of the season recuperating from wrist surgery. He was cleared to return against the Nets on March 11 but then tested positive for COVID-19.
He entered Sunday’s game late in the first quarter and hit his only shot of the first half, a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Langford was also quite disruptive on defense during his five-minute stint. Stevens said before the game that Langford’s playing time will be limited in the near future as he gets back into shape after battling the coronavirus.
“He’s not ready for anything significant,” Stevens said. “So he might get a stint or two. We’ll see how the game goes. We’ll try to ramp him up as much as we can in games and in practice over the next couple of weeks, but I don’t have any expectations on him here for a couple of weeks.”
Center Tristan Thompson remains out because of COVID-19 health and safety protocols but could return this week. Forward Jaylen Brown, who had been listed as questionable Sunday with a knee contusion, was cleared to play.
Familiar faces for Wanamaker
Hayward and Terry Rozier were joined by another former Celtic prior to the March 25 trade deadline, when Charlotte acquired point guard Brad Wanamaker from the Warriors in exchange for future draft compensation.
Wanamaker spent the previous two seasons as a backup point guard with the Celtics. With LaMelo Ball, Hayward and Malik Monk all sidelined, he will be in line for a large opportunity over the next few weeks.
“He’s tough, he’s smart, he’s solid, he’s a pro’s pro,” Stevens said. “When you talk about leadership, and daily example, he’s up there with anybody we’ve had. And so I think he has all those great attributes. I’m happy for Brad, really, really enjoyed him, and I think he wasn’t playing as much after the All-Star Break with Golden State, and I haven’t talked to him today, but I’m sure he was excited to get back with Terry and Gordon and some familiar faces and get a chance to compete with Charlotte.”