Step-Up Jays

If you’re a fan of the NBA, you never want to see a player get injured. Especially not on opening night. After signing a big free agent contract. While being the big piece of the championship hope. But that’s exactly what happened to Gordon Hayward five minutes into his Boston Celtics career as he went up for a lob and came down awkwardly on his leg. The reaction from the Cavs bench, coaching staff and even the referee was one of immediate horror. Even Hayward himself put his head in his hands after looking at his left foot in the most unnatural of positions.  

The official diagnosis was a dislocated ankle and fractured tibia which will keep him out of Boston’s lineup for an extended period of time, perhaps even the rest of the regular season. Immediately, Hayward’s peers around the League sent well wishes his way after seeing the injury and grasping the severity of it.

“I’ve seen a couple injuries like that in my lifetime,” LeBron James said after the game. “I’ve seen Paul George when it happened. I was watching the game with Shaun Livingston when it happened when he was with the Clippers. I was watching NCAA basketball when Kevin Ware was at Louisville. Those are the injuries that you never see coming and you never want to happen, no matter who it is, no matter what the stature, no matter how much competitive nature that you have. It’s just very unfortunate.“

Kobe Bryant, no stranger to serious injuries himself, posted a picture of Hayward on his Instagram account with a caption that read, in part, “Be sad. Be mad. Be frustrated. Scream. Cry. Sulk… It’s a long journey, but if you focus on the mini milestones along the way, you will find beauty in the struggle of doing simple things that prior to this injury, were taken for granted.”

Brad Stevens, Hayward’s former college and now pro coach, said “You hurt for him. I really for him. He’s put in a lot of great work, and I thought he had his most comfortable week as far as feeling like he was going to play really well.”

Despite the somber moment for everyone in Quicken Loans Arena, the NBA is unforgiving because the show must go on. The Celtics still have 81 more games to play and need to regain their focus with Hayward out of uniform. They may have gone from a team with the potential to win the Eastern Conference and dethrone the Cleveland Cavaliers in the process, to a squad who could very well find themselves in the bottom four of the playoff picture, but what we do know with absolute certainty is that Stevens will be turning to two of his two young swingmen, Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum.

Kyrie Irving will get what he wanted by leaving LeBron’s shadow: He’ll have to carry more of the load. Al Horford and Marcus Smart will be asked to do more, but neither player has much ceiling to their games. It’ll be on a 19-year-old Tatum and the soon-to-be 21-year-old Brown to step up and produce in a major way, and in a hurry. There is no learning curve anymore. It’s sink or swim time now.

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To their credit, both were phenomenal last night. Tatum, who drew the start against the Cavs on opening night, shot 5-12 from the field, scored 14 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, becoming the first Celtic since Larry Bird in 1979 to record a double-double in his NBA debut. Tatum is a unique combination of size, skill and athleticism and didn’t look as if he was out of his league against the Cavaliers, which was a good sign on Tuesday night and for the future. Brown’s stats line was equally impressive as he put up 25 points to go with six rebounds and two steals. His ability to attack the basket and get to the rim and finish, along with his willingness to mix it up on defense and get after the ball on the glass, will be great assets for the time this season. More importantly, Brown showed the aggressiveness and desire to fill the void. Still, after the game, both were somber as the gravity of the new team reality started to set in.

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“Gordon is a leader of our team, and going into the season we leaned on him a lot,” said Brown. “Now we just have to come together even more and try to be a better team until he comes back.”

Tatum added, “We prayed for him, for his health, and we just told each other we just have to keep pushing.”

As a head coach, Brad Stevens knows he’s faced with a difficult task of trying to replace his All-Star on the wing. But, as one of the best coaches in the game right now, he has complete confidence in Brown, who averaged 17 minutes as a rookie off the bench. Brown started last night’s home opener and the Hayward injury necessitated 40 minutes from the young forward. It’s a role that the Celtics envisioned for Brown, who was the third overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, and the object of desire by many teams including Cleveland when the two teams were discussing the Irving trade. The Celtics thought that highly of Brown and now he’ll have to reciprocate the franchise’s confidence in him. The ceiling with Brown is high, almost as high as his vertical, and now he’ll get every opportunity to scale his game. Mainly a defender and spot-up shooter and slasher last year, Brown will be called on to create offense and shoot more threes, two tasks that he showed last night.

Much like Brown, Tatum is another lottery prize that the Celtics keep scratching off. If you recall, the Celtics had the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, but thought so highly of Tatum that they considered taking him at that spot before the Sixers offered to swap the third pick and throw in another future first rounder for the top selection. The Lakers’ (and Magic Johnson’s) very public desire for Lonzo Ball at No. 2 meant the Celtics were able to get their man in Tatum and stash away another first-round pick—well played, Danny Ainge. As NBA-ready as many scouts praised of Tatum, the Celtics were planning to ease him into the pro game, much the same way they did with Brown. But now Tatum will have to make good on the scouting reports. Drawing comparisons to former Celtic great Paul Pierce, Tatum is a silky smooth scorer who relies on deceptive quickness, length and skill to beat his man. Tatum played 37 minutes, more than what Stevens imagined going into the game, but the youngster showed little stage fright despite going against LeBron James (James did welcome Tatum to the NBA, blocking his first ever shot attempt) first and the conference champs.

Stevens is also trusting of Tatum based on what he did against the Cavs, but he also understands that one good performance in an 82-game season doesn’t mean much in the bigger picture.

“He can play better, but I thought he did a pretty good job for the first game,” the coach said of his rookie. “That’s pretty hard to do, [being] thrown into this environment in your first game, starting, [and] to play that well.”

Brown had an opportunity to learn under veteran Jae Crowder, the second-year player understands that he’ll now need to not only play a bigger role on the team, he’ll also have to mentor Tatum and be a leader on and off the floor, a role he took on during summer league. Brown truly understands that the pressure isn’t just on him and Tatum, but on the whole team to come together, circle the wagons and try as hard as they can to put the team in a good position until Hayward makes a full recovery and returns to the court.

“Jayson is a special talent, and we’re going to need to see it from him this season, especially with Gordon going down. He’ll have to step up, but Jayson will be all right,” Brown said. “We have to come together and play. We have a great coach in Brad Stevens, so at that point it’s play for each other, play the game the right way and we’ll be fine.”