Tuesday night’s NBA season opener between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics was one of the most highly anticipated in the history of the entire league. The storyline of the two top teams in the east coming together after one of the biggest trades in NBA history sent Kyrie Irving from Cleveland to Boston was all that was needed to set the stage for the highly anticipated showdown.
But there were other factors as well. How would Cleveland cope with getting blown out by the Warriors in the Finals? How would they look after the rapid-fire restructuring of their roster with aging superstars like Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade? How would Boston’s new roster come together with so many new, exciting pieces? How would their young players continue to take a step forward? How would Irving and Gordon Hayward look as their 1-2 punch?
Unfortunately, all that excitement went away in an instant when Hayward went down just six minutes into his debut with the Celtics with a gruesome injury. Initially, it was called a fractured ankle, yet Celtics coach Brad Stevens said it was not only a dislocated ankle but also a fractured tibia. It was ugly. It was horrific. It was something you never, ever, ever, ever want to see on a basketball court or any athletic field of endeavor.
The Celtics went down big after Hayward’s injury. That was to be expected. The team was in shellshock. Here was one of their two big offseason additions that would lead them past the Cavaliers, not just for the regular season but for the playoffs as well.
But then the Celtics fought back. And much like they did in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals when the Cavaliers looked ready to blow them away with ease, Boston showed a huge amount of resilience in fighting back. In fact, were it not for LeBron James’ and Kevin Love’s late-game heroics, the Celtics could have walked out of Cleveland with a win in spite of witnessing the unthinkable.
Hayward could be gone for the season, but the Celtics showed last night that all is not lost for the 2017-18 season. In spite of what cartoon supervillain Skip Bayless may say, Hayward’s injury does not give the Cavaliers a golden ticket to another NBA Finals.
Perhaps the brightest sign for the Celtics was the play of second-year player Jaylen Brown. It might be easy to think of Brown as an afterthought in the wake of so many major moves by the C’s over the last 24 months of free agent signings and Brooklyn Nets draft picks. Brown was the #3 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft and had a very quiet rookie season, averaging just 6.6 PPG in just over 17 minutes of action.
Tuesday night in Cleveland, though, Brown was a star. He went head-to-head with LeBron and the Cavs and scored a career high 25 points. It’s easy to forget that Brown is only 20 years old and has so much more room to grow and see his potential blossom. With Hayward hurt, the Celtics are going to have to depend on Brown to be another scorer to help Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. If he can take a big leap this year and continue that kind of play it won’t only help the Celtics this season, but in the long run as well.
And then there’s this year’s No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum. While he was a bit quieter with 14 points, he showed flashes of why Danny Ainge and company hand-picked him to be the player they wanted out of this star-studded draft class. The 37 minutes he played last night showed he’s ready to play and contribute right away. And he’s only 19 years old.
The Celtics’ role players will have to step up in big ways in Hayward’s absence. Getting Marcus Morris on the floor will greatly improve their frontcourt depth, which might be one of their few weaknesses. Marcus Smart adding a jumpshot to his all around game would be like manna from heaven, too. And if there’s any coach in the NBA who you would want to deal with this adversity and gel a new group of players together, it just might be Brad Stevens.
Then there’s Kyrie Irving. This is what he wanted. A chance to be the alpha dog and lead a team to glory with his name at the top of the marquee. It’s now up to Irving to be the leader for this group of young stars and rally them together, to help them grow and mature throughout the season, and to be ready for the ultimate test come playoff time. There isn’t anyone in their right mind who still wouldn’t think that the Cavaliers and Celtics are 1 and 1A in the Eastern Conference after watching last night’s game.
Sure, maybe it’s sacrilegious to call anyone outside of Golden State a true “title contender” in today’s NBA. That’s a fair argument. But at least the Celtics showed Tuesday night that they aren’t going away so easily this season and there’s still plenty to be excited about for their present and their future.