There are a few positives that emanated from Tuesday’s horrific night for the Celtics in Cleveland.
Gordon Hayward is out indefinitely, obviously, after undergoing surgery Wednesday evening for his fractured tibia and dislocated left ankle. Conservatively, the procedure and recovery could take several months.
And the games are going to come fast, giving coach Brad Stevens little time to determine a Plan B. The Milwaukee Bucks presented the first challenge in a 108-100 loss in Wednesday night’s home opener at TD Garden and Stevens opted for Marcus Smart in the starting lineup and swingman Abdel Nader, making his NBA debut, as the first player off the bench.
For the coming weeks, it seems Stevens will continue to mix-and-match lineups to determine the best combination. Losing Hayward means the Celtics will have to compensate for roughly 21 points, 7 rebounds, and perhaps 6 assists per game. He is a facilitator, scorer off the dribble, and an above-average 3-point shooter.
The only caveat from the injury was the timing. The Celtics began training camp on Sept. 26, so the team had roughly three weeks to work together with Hayward and he was beginning to get comfortable. But the Celtics played just 5 minutes and 15 seconds of the regular season with him.
There is ample time for the Celtics to regroup and Stevens nearly cleared the bench in the first half. Nader, Terry Rozier, Daniel Theis, and Aron Baynes all saw action.
“It’s going to be that way, we’ve got a lot of young guys,” Stevens said. “I’m hopeful that we can find the right combinations. Obviously, we didn’t anticipate going maybe this far in the bench this early. I thought some of those guys did a pretty good job. The part that we’ve got to find in the combination that works all together. Especially when we got to the bench. We’ll find it.”
It’s going to take these types of experiments for a while. The Celtics have compiled a deep roster but it’s painfully young and inexperienced. Wednesday was Jayson Tatum’s second NBA game. Jaylen Brown is being depended on for veteran production in veteran minutes and he still hasn’t reached his 21st birthday.
The Celtics’ starting five that hit the floor Wednesday was not the dominant, confident bunch that began the night in Cleveland. They were a scrappy group, just trying maintain a lead against a Milwaukee team that has aspirations of being a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference with one of the game’s rising stars in Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was too much in the fourth quarter, finishing with 37 points and 13 rebounds.
It will take weeks for the Celtics to gain confidence in themselves again. They will slowly adjust to the absence of Hayward and realize that they won’t be the team they planned to be in training camp until he returns.
What will hurt the process is the massive offseason turnover. Kyrie Irving made his TD Garden debut and looked as if he were pressing, committing a double-dribble violation and air-balling a 3-pointer in the first half. Smart has to get adjusted to a new starting role just weeks after Stevens pulled him aside and told him he would be coming off the bench.
What’s more, the Celtics’ most experienced reserve now becomes Rozier, who just entered his third NBA season and has to get accustomed to an expanded role. There were moments Wednesday when the Celtics looked unorganized and befuddled.
Rotations that weren’t even considered Monday are now going to be commonplace. Theis, expected to play sparingly, was thrust into the lineup as the backup center against Milwaukee’s huge lineup. Stevens even activated second-round pick Jabari Bird of Cal to occupy Hayward’s roster spot.
The positive is it’s so early in the season, so much time to figure things out, and there is hope Boston can be an Eastern Conference contender by season’s end. But the process is going to be ugly at times. The defense was shabby. Antetokounmpo got to the rim at will. The Bucks got several open looks at 3-pointers, and they looked like the more organized team.
So the adjustment period has begun. But time is on their side. The Celtics could use their remaining roster spot to add another wing play or shooter. Marcus Morris will return from his sore knee. The light isn’t shining as brightly as it did before, but there is light. It’s just going to require patience and fortitude.
“We’re playing a lot of different guys out there and it’s not going to look perfect,” Irving said. “The challenge is to continue to get better and progress, and raise our expectations in one another. Guys are going to need to step up and understand what defense we’re going to try to deliver every single night.”
Three Celtics made their NBA debuts in a competitive game while 19-year-old Jason Tatum logged nearly 37 minutes. Last month, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told the Globe that Tatum likely wouldn’t be a candidate for Rookie of the Year because of a lack of major playing time. Well…Tatum’s role and playing time could expand now.
“We understand that guys, I don’t think probably would have thought they would have been in this position, as early in the season, young guys we have on this team now having the opportunity to go out there and play in big-time games every single night and teams coming at us,” Irving said. “That’s going to be an adjustment period. I understand that. I don’t want to make the excuse that we’re a young team, but we are.
“We definitely have some experience here, and we have to utilize that and continue to exude confidence in young guys and ourselves.”