On Nov. 9, the Celtics pummeled the Spurs to improve to 7-1, a surprising start given all the roster overhaul from the previous year. But the joy was tempered by the news that Gordon Hayward had broken a bone in his left hand, an injury that would ultimately require surgery and was expected to sideline the former All-Star for about six weeks.
The Celtics, who do not have an especially deep roster, were tasked with navigating some treacherous pockets of their schedule and essentially biding their time until Hayward’s return.
Along the way, though, they have been able to do more than stay afloat. After a slightly rocky stretch on their West Coast road trip, this team is humming again. Its powerful 108-95 win over the Nuggets — one of the top teams in the West — on Friday night was the latest example.
The Celtics have won five of their last six games, and their missteps along the way have resulted more in toe stubs than open wounds: Their four losses without Hayward have come by a total of 13 points, the same total as their one win over Denver.
Boston coach Brad Stevens prefers not to get swept up by results, especially this early in the season. But after Friday’s victory he acknowledged that things have gone more smoothly than he expected after Hayward went down.
“I don’t know what we are now, but we’re way ahead of where I thought we would be results-wise,” Stevens said, “because the first part of the schedule, we played three more road games and those trips are really hard. But there’s a long way to go, so we’ll see how that all ends itself up. But our guys have done a good job thus far during that stretch. That’s what good teams do.”
The good news for the Celtics is that Hayward has been cleared to return to full-contact practice, and he is expected to take part in Sunday’s session. Stevens said Hayward likely will return before the Christmas game against the Raptors, but all signs indicate it could be considerably earlier than that if there are no setbacks.
“We’ve done pretty good, held our own [without Hayward],” forward Jayson Tatum said. “But, can’t wait for him to be back.”
Before Hayward was hurt, he was averaging 18.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 4.1 assists while converting 55.5 percent of his field goal attempts. There is not a team in the NBA that would not be excited about pouring that kind of production back into its lineup.
Nevertheless, whenever a team is thriving like the Celtics are and a key player re-enters the system, there will be some questions about whether the chemistry will take a short-term hit as roles once again shift, even if only slightly.
“When he does get back, we’ll reintegrate him and we’ll just keep trying to get everybody to play their best basketball and make the right play,” Stevens said. “That’s been the theme the whole year, just make the right play. Everything will take care of itself.”
Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker are all averaging at least 20 points per game since Hayward was sidelined. That is expected of Walker, a three-time All-Star. And Tatum has yet to string together a long run of big offensive nights. But Brown is in the midst of the best stretch of his career.
Over the last six games Brown is averaging 22.3 points and 6 rebounds, shooting 55.4 percent overall and 40 percent beyond the 3-point line.
Last season, Brown willingly accepted a reduced role at the start of the year as Hayward was worked back into the rotation after missing the previous season with an ankle injury, and his production suffered.
Hayward’s return this time, of course, will come after he missed just more than a month rather than a full year. Brown and Hayward have played together five times this year, and the Celtics went 4-1 in that stretch.
And since Hayward has been able to maintain his conditioning while he is out, he should not have issues getting back into game shape like one might after suffering a lower-body injury. In the end, Boston will just be adding another dynamic wing to its arsenal.
“I think you’re always getting used to each other again, but it hasn’t been that long,” Stevens said. “So I’m not really worried about it. At the end of the day, the best version of ourselves includes all those guys, and we all know it, and our chance against the very, very best to go as late as you want to go includes all those guys. So we got a long way to the end of the season.”
Tatum, for one, is not concerned about any readjustment period.
“It’s going to be easy,” he said.