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CLEVELAND — It took the Celtics four months to meticulously construct a team that could challenge the Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy. And then, in an instant in Boston’s 102-99 loss to the Cavaliers on Tuesday, those hopes may have crumbled.
Just 5 minutes, 15 seconds into a season filled with great expectations, Gordon Hayward suffered a grisly ankle injury that will sideline him indefinitely.
It started as a simple play, with Kyrie Irving lofting an alley-oop to the All-Star forward. Cleveland’s LeBron James contested the play, and the two appeared to collide a bit. Hayward landed hard and awkwardly, and his left ankle was visibly and gruesomely twisted. He was treated by medical staffs from both teams and was diagnosed with a broken and dislocated ankle.
After Hayward suffered the injury, an official immediately sprinted toward Boston’s sideline and summoned help. The play happened near Cleveland’s bench, and the Cavaliers there covered their faces, recoiled, or left their seats altogether.
Cavaliers guard Dwyane Wade took a knee about 20 feet from Hayward and lowered his head. Celtics forward Jaylen Brown walked away in disbelief, with both hands on his head. There was also an audible gasp in this sellout crowd that had been so rowdy just moments earlier.
“I can’t unsee that,” one woman in the stands said.
As medical staffs tended to Hayward, the Celtics gathered in a big group hug on the other side of the court. Rookie forward Semi Ojeleye then lead them in a prayer.
A compression cast was put on Hayward’s left leg and he was ultimately rolled off of the court as he received a standing ovation from Cleveland’s fans. Hayward’s parents had made the 300-mile trip from their Indianapolis home to see their son make his Celtics debut. And now his mother Jody was rushing to the locker room to check on her only son.
Warning: The following video contains graphic images.
“We were very excited to have him really flourish, and he had a great week of practice,” Celtics forward Al Horford said of Hayward. “Everything was great. This is a setback for him. But for us, we have to keep encouraging him. He needs to take his time, get well. And knowing Gordon like I know him, I know he’ll be focused and he’ll come back.”
The Celtics signed Hayward to a four-year, $128 million contract in July. After the team traded for Irving, the two were expected to help Boston contend for the Eastern Conference title. Now that hope is quite uncertain.
At the time of Hayward’s injury Boston held a 12-9 lead. But the players looked understandably shaken when they returned to the court. The Cavaliers seized control of the game with a 35-16 run, and even the Celtics’ bright moments were met with listless responses.
With 2:38 left in the second quarter, for example, center Aron Baynes went up and powerfully blocked Wade at the rim. It was the type of play that would typically energize the Celtics’ bench, but the players hardly moved.
“Gordon is a leader of our team, and going into the season we leaned on him a lot,” Brown said. “Now we just have to come together even more and try to be a better team until he comes back. But it’s tough to see something like that.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens coached Hayward at Butler University from 2008-2010, and this season was to be their improbable reunion, two men from Indiana who traveled an unlikely path to one of the most famous franchises in sports.
Late Tuesday, Stevens appeared glassy-eyed as he stood in front of a throng of reporters in a hot, cramped interview room in the bowels of Quicken Loans Arena. He had spoken to Hayward moments after the injury and he had spoken to him at halftime, but really there was nothing he could say that would make any of this any better, not now.
“I really feel for him,” Stevens said.
Hayward was taken to the airport by ambulance, and he was scheduled to meet his teammates there for their flight back to Boston. Then they would go home, and Hayward would go to New England Baptist Hospital. The team will soon know more about the severity of the injury, but they already know he will not be returning soon.
“Now we have to pull through now more than ever,” Horford said. “Obviously, we wish that Gordon is able to have a speedy recovery and get healthy again.”
Although it certainly will not be easy, there will come a time when the Celtics will learn what it takes to play without Hayward. On Tuesday, they were unprepared for the sudden and crushing blow.
They led 12-9 when Hayward was injured, but Cleveland led by as many as 18 points early in the third quarter. Then the Celtics mounted an improbable charge. Marcus Smart, who was held scoreless in the first half, consistently exploited his matchup against Kyle Korver in the third quarter, when he made 5 of 6 shots and scored 12 points, helping the Celtics pull within 71-69.
For weeks, this game had generated endless hype because it would mark Irving’s return to Cleveland after an uncomfortable exit over the summer. He was booed lustily in introductions and when he touched the ball, but even that vitriol seemed to subside after Hayward was hurt.
For a moment, it looked like Irving would carry the Celtics to an unlikely win against his former team. He hit back-to-back 3-pointers early in the fourth, the second giving Boston an 82-80 lead. Then with 2:o4 left, Jayson Tatum scored inside to give the Celtics a 98-95 lead.
But the Cavaliers pushed back with a pair of Kevin Love free throws and a tough, driving layup by James, who then forced a turnover with 1:04 left.
After a timeout, James drew a double team and fired a pass to Love, who drilled a 3-pointer from the right corner with 46.3 seconds left.
With Boston trailing, 102-99, James missed a 3 with 10 seconds left, and the Celtics raced the other way. Brown’s pull-up 3 was off, and the ball ended up in Irving’s hands. He was guarded by James as he fired a 3 from the right corner just before the buzzer, but the shot was well short.
“Wish I had my legs underneath me,” Irving said. “I thought ‘Bron was going to jump. He bit on the first [fake], and then I didn’t create enough separation.”
Irving and James, whose pregame greeting was brief and chilly, hugged after the final buzzer. But on this night, the drama surrounding Irving’s return became an afterthought.