CLEVELAND — The gruesomeness was followed by heartbreak.
The Celtics carried big dreams and aspirations into this season and 5 minutes, 15 seconds into it Tuesday, Gordon Hayward suffered one of the most ghastly injuries in recent memory. His left ankle turned at a 90-degree angle. He was sitting under the basket at Quicken Loans Arena helpless, writhing in pain, pointing to his leg while Cavaliers players on the bench in front of him covered their faces with towels.
Hayward is likely out for the season, the maximum-salary player, the small forward the Celtics had coveted for years will soon begin a long recovery process. Meanwhile, after the Celtics’ 102-99 loss to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, there are 81 games left to play and the Celtics have to devise a contingency plan just to compete.
Their chances of overcoming Cleveland and winning the Eastern Conference diminished considerably after Hayward’s injury. He was supposed to relieve the scoring load from Kyrie Irving and Al Horford.
So what now? How does the brilliant Brad Stevens compensate for the absence of an All-Star? There are no easy answers. Elite players aren’t replaceable, so the Celtics are going to have to make an attempt by committee.
The injury immediately places more pressure on Jaylen Brown to develop. The 20-year-old carried the Celtics in the first half while they played mostly in a daze, still in shock from the catastrophic injury.
Brown was stellar in his sophomore debut with a team-high 25 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 steals and he will have to continue that consistent presence indefinitely.
First-round draft pick Jayson Tatum is also going to have to play beyond his 19 years, which is unfair but NBA life ain’t fair. Tatum looked lost out there at times Tuesday, getting snuffed by James in a “Come stronger than that kid” sequence in the first quarter. Tatum missed his first five shots and had 2 points at halftime, but he was 5 f0r 6 in the second half and finished with 14 points and a team-high 10 rebounds. He will get better and more confident, but it seems unreasonable to depend on him right away.
Speaking of green, Semi Ojeleye, the second-round pick, played nearly nine scoreless first-half minutes. The Celtics have depth, but it’s young depth and suddenly the maturity curve no longer exists.
Marcus Smart missed his first nine shots, but that didn’t stop his aggressiveness. As the game progressed, Smart became more confident and used his svelte body to attack the basket and post up a defenseless Kyle Korver.
Smart definitely is playing with a personal agenda. On Monday, the Celtics passed on the opportunity to sign Smart to a contract extension, making him a restricted free agent next summer.
“We’ll be ready to play [Wednesday],” Stevens said about the home opener against Milwaukee. “We were going to depend on Marcus regardless.”
Smart likely will slide to shooting guard, depending on the matchup. His 3-point shot still needs major work, but Smart brings a toughness and physicality the Celtics relish, while Hayward’s absence will provide him more of an opportunity.
One key component in moving forward is swingman Marcus Morris, who will miss the first week or so with knee soreness. Morris was expected to start when he was acquired for Avery Bradley, but his progress has been slowed by an assault trial in which he was found not guilty, lack of basketball shape, and the sore knee. Morris can add scoring, toughness, and rebounding, but it could take a couple of weeks before he’s fully acclimated.
What’s frustrating for the Celtics is Hayward was just getting comfortable in the offense. In addition to being a scorer, he’s a playmaker and facilitator. The Celtics aren’t going to replace that. They are going to have to push forward with crisp ball movement, even more offensive production from Irving and Horford.
If Hayward is ruled out for the season, the Celtics could apply for a disabled player exception and could pursue a player through trade with the additional salary-cap space. There are free agents who may be able to help. Gerald Green was just waived by the Bucks, for example. But expect president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to take his time in making the right decision for both the short and long term.
The Celtics were already deep at swingman and it could be just a matter of letting Brown and Tatum grow and improve, as they did in the second half against the Cavaliers.
This was a devastating night for the Celtics, a crushing injury to a standout player.
Hayward was going to contribute greatly to the Celtics’ quest of overcoming Cleveland in the Eastern Conference. The organization has to be concerned about his long-term prognosis.
There is a full season left to play, however. After looking shellshocked in the first half, the Celtics were a semblance of themselves in the second half, playing with passion and vigor. Irving took over in the fourth quarter but came up short on a couple of late attempts. Tatum played beyond his years after the jitters and Brown played grown-man ball.
The Celtics now return home Wednesday night against the Milwaukee Bucks with a major quandary on their hands. They will have to figure out how to move on, but the certainty is they will move on.