Under normal circumstances, there’s no such thing as a litmus test for an NBA franchise that is 1/41st (or 2.44 percent, for you decimal junkies) of its way through its schedule.
Under normal circumstances, there are no truths to be revealed so soon, no certainties, no promises immediately fulfilled. Allen Iverson voice: We’re talking about Game 2. Game 2. That’s practically practice.
But these are not normal circumstances for the Boston Celtics. They are carrying 11 new players on the roster, and one of the two most talented and important of those newcomers was, staggeringly, lost to a devastating injury before the first quarter of their season-opening loss to the Cavaliers Tuesday was complete.
The specter of Gordon Hayward’s gruesome injury – a dislocated ankle and fractured tibia – Tuesday night hovered above the Celtics home opener Wednesday against the Milwaukee Bucks. How could it not? Forget the basketball implications; it was viscerally shattering, the sort of hideous visual that immediately drains the blood from a witness’s face.
Though the Celtics proved remarkably resilient versus the Cavs after losing Hayward – they led late in the fourth quarter before succumbing to LeBron James’s force of will, 102-99 – a sadness hangover might have been expected in the home opener just an evening later.
It seemed in the Cavs game that the shock and sadness was converted into adrenaline and emotion, and it was darned near enough. On a disappointing night, one in which Danny Ainge’s best-laid plans were cruelly put on hold, the Celtics still managed to make an encouraging first impression.
But what would happen the next day, when reality set in? No, maybe this is not the time for an accurate litmus test so soon into the season. But it was impossible not to attempt to gauge the temperature of the team in the wake of the Hayward injury.
The mood was lightened to some degree when, during the pregame, Hayward’s visage literally hovered about the crowd.
“What’s up everybody?,’’ he said on a video, recorded from his hospital bed, that was played on the scoreboard above center court. “I’m gonna be all right. It hurts me that I can’t be there for the home opener. I want nothing more than to be with my teammates. I’ll be supporting the guys from here and wishing the team the best of luck.’’
The ticketholders didn’t forget about him even as an entertaining and ultimately unfulfilling game (the Bucks pulled away for a 108-100 win behind Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 37 points) began playing out. With 2 minutes and 31 seconds left in the first quarter, fans began chanting “Gor-don Hay-ward!” It won’t be the last time he’s saluted by name at the Garden. But for the moment, as cold as it feels, this must be about the players who are on the court.
“As you can see,’’ said Kyrie Irving afterward about the impact of Hayward’s absence, “As cliché as this sounds, that’s life. [Expletive] happens.”
That’s why Game 2 felt important. To begin to discover what will happen, whether it’s the [expletive] kind or otherwise. Even so early in a season, a team’s energy can be measured. There are glimpses about what they can become. There are no answers about how this season is going to go in Hayward’s absence, not now and not for a while. But there are clues to be found about what the future may bring.
So how did it go? If Tuesday encouraged optimism, then Wednesday preached patience. Perhaps plugged-in Celtics fans do not require the reminder, but man, is this team depending upon youth – and they must accelerate up the growth curve in Hayward’s absence.
Jaylen Brown doesn’t just seem capable of a huge leap forward; he appears to be in the middle of the leap right now. A night after dropping a team-high 25 points on the Cavaliers while at times legitimately agitating James on defense, he put up 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists before fouling out on a ticky-tack call late in the fourth quarter. He’s guarded James and Antetokounmpo on successive nights and held his own, and he looks like a vastly improved offensive player. I cannot wait to see where he is two months from now.
“It’s all about me being aggressive and Jayson [Tatum] being aggressive,” said Brown. “That’s going to help us all.”
As enticing as Tatum’s obvious talent is, he didn’t get the results in his second NBA game that he found in his first, when he finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds. He did have an important-at-the-time tip-in of his own miss with 1 minute 59 seconds left to pull the Celtics within 97-95. But in his 36 minutes, he finished with 8 points and was a minus-15.
This is probably a good time for this reminder: Bucks benchwarmer (and Celtics-Nets blockbuster afterthought) Jason Terry is beginning his 19th season in the NBA, a slightly shorter span of time than Tatum has been on earth. He’s going to be great. There is no Markelle Fultz envy around here. But there will be growing pains.
Even the cornerstone Irving, who can already claim to have hit a championship-winning shot to take down the winningest regular season team in league history, is a relative youth. At 25, he’s just nine months older than Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon, the reigning Rookie of the Year. His NBA bona fides are already proven, but there is the matter of meshing with his new teammates in Boston. Wednesday, his was a haphazard performance (7 of 25 shooting, 17 points, 3 assists but none in the first half).
It will get better during games 3 through 82, for Irving and the rest of the Celtics still seeking that first win as a unit. They still have a chance to be pretty good. But no matter how rapidly the youngsters develop and how well Brad Stevens will eventually get this team to play together, there is one truth to be found 1/41st of the way through the season. No matter how good things get, it’s going to be impossible to forget that they’d be even better with a healthy Hayward.