The Celtics have prided themselves on depth, and they’ve been able to pad their roster with young talent through the Brooklyn Nets trade in 2013 that netted four first-round picks.
This season, they were finally able to find harmony among their plethora of small forwards, blending Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown into the starting lineup and racing to a 7-1 start.
The Celtics will have to now rely on their depth at the position with Hayward out several weeks with a fractured left hand.
Hayward was playing the best basketball of his Celtics tenure, averaging 18.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 4.1 assists, including his 39-point performance last week against Cleveland, when he was hurt on Saturday. He was not only serving as a go-to scorer but also a playmaker and rebounder. Hayward will be missed, but the games will continue starting Monday against the rejuvenated Dallas Mavericks and the Celtics will have to devise an alternative plan.
One answer represented himself well in the Celtics’ 135-115 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday, Boston’s first win at AT&T Center in eight years. Jaylen Brown scored 30 points in that game and if not for an illness that cost him three games, would be off to the best start of his NBA career.
After scoring 8 points in a foul-troubled season opener against the Philadelphia, Brown scored 44 points over the next two games before his illness. He looks as comfortable and under control attacking the rim and scoring around the basket as he has in his career.
Brown will play a more prominent role in Hayward’s absence.
“I think we’ve got a lot of good guys in this locker room that have the right mentality, put in the work, I think we’ll be fine,” Brown said. “Of course, having G not out there is going to hurt us a little but we’ve got to be ready to step up and make plays.”
When asked whether the scoring responsibility will increase for him and Tatum, Brown said: “I think the points are going to come. The playmaking, making sure we’re getting other people involved, making the game a little bit easier for us, I think that’s the stuff Gordon brings to the game, his playmaking ability.
“We’ve all got to step up in that regard to make sure the ball is moving, making sure we’re getting each other easy ones.”
The only sample size in life without Hayward this season is the second half against the Spurs. Celtics coach Brad Stevens used rookie Javonte Green, a player who is gaining his trust, for 12:36 and he responded with 4 points. What Green brings to the Celtics is an extra defender and athlete and more versatility in defending backcourts.
The Celtics have prided themselves on versatility, especially this season. They have been prone to play extra small lineups with 6-foot-7-inch Grant Williams playing center, but they have been so staunch at the other positions in switching screens, they have flourished.
“I just told him to keep his head up,” Stevens said of Hayward. “That’s all you can do. He worked hard. He’ll keep himself in good shape. He’ll be ready to go when he gets back but again now he needs to help encourage some of our wings off the bench. They need to be ready to be called upon to have value to winning.”
Also, the Celtics will welcome Enes Kanter back, perhaps as soon as Monday, and he’ll bring another scoring option and an opportunity for Stevens to play bigger lineups. The Celtics will have more frontcourt versatility with Kanter back. In his absence, they have been playing Daniel Theis heavy minutes.
Marcus Smart will also likely play more of a point guard/forward role in handling the ball and making plays when Kemba Walker is shifted to shooting guard. Hayward was comfortable playing point forward, and he was third on the team in assists because he usually made the right play.
Tatum and Brown aren’t as comfortable in that role but they are improving. Stevens likely won’t put the two in positions where they are out of their element but the ball movement will have to be maintained. One aspect in which Hayward flourished is early scoring. There were times recently where he carried the offense in the first half while Tatum and Walker warmed up.
Brown got off to a fast start Saturday and the Celtics will have to be more focused on scoring early, which has been an issue this season. The Celtics have enough depth to compensate for Hayward’s absence, especially with Tatum and Brown both taking major steps forward this season. But Hayward served as a security blanket because of his poise, and that will no longer be the case.
This is why the Celtics built depth over the past few years. They should move forward smoothly if they can rely on their stars to be stars.