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Celtics face challenge of regrouping after the loss of Gordon Hayward

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Boston is down, but they’re not out.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Celtics find themselves in a place where no team with Finals aspirations wants to be. In the first game of the season, the star wing goes down, and all the excitement and expectations of the year are suddenly muted. From an emotional standpoint it’s hard to find basketball important after that. But the league stops for no one, and the Celtics will have to regroup quickly to salvage the season.

To be completely clear, this team took a big step back. Hayward is a bona-fide All-Star who looked to take the next step in the prime of his career. But there’s a tiny strand of silver lining. This team is still new and still hasn’t really gelled together, meaning that there won’t be much of a process of learning how to play without Hayward because, truthfully, the Celtics really never learned to play with him. Boston will have 81 games to mix and match different lineups, and through that time I expect a few things to happen:

  1. Lots of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Morris

The Celtics have a lot of wings, and one man going down means more minutes for them. Guys like Tatum and Morris who may have been being prepared for a limited role are going to be expected to play 30 or more minutes every night. For Morris, that’s no issue. He was a quality starter for Detroit, and the role isn’t foreign to him. Morris is capable of scoring, but the team will need him to hit his threes at a league-average rate, buy into the ball-movement system, and be an enforcer on defense. Morris might be the most critical part of the Celtics’ ability to regroup because as a veteran he will need to give the Celtics consistent production every single night. As a smart veteran on the court, he can give the two young wings guidance during their funks.

The shift for Jaylen could mean seeing more minutes spread out between positions 2 through 4 for defensive purposes. Offensively, he has to continue to be aggressive and take shots. Last night was a strong indicator that he’s aware of that need, but in this league you’re what you can do consistently, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can continue to keep up the aggression even if the points don’t all come together.

Jayson Tatum will be thrown to the wolves. Not only will Boston probably keep him in the starting lineup, but his minutes will hover around the 30mpg mark for the rest of the season. Last night he looked overwhelmed by the moment before settling down in the second half and impressing us all with solid shooting, finishing at the rim, and defensive patience in a way none of us saw coming. But believe it or not, I think Tatum’s biggest strength to this team will be his rebounding. Last night he was able to gobble up 10 rebounds (which lead the team), and it just seems to be something that he has a knack for. The scoring probably won’t always be there for the rookie, but if he can defend, grab boards, and at least be a threat spotting up, he could be in line for one helluva rookie year.

2. More Marcus Smart and the 3-guard lineups

Marcus Smart was already going to play a big role on this team, but it just got more important. The Celtics seemed to enjoy the ability to have multiple ball-handlers on the floor, and Smart will be the go-to guy when the Cs want to get Irving off-ball so he can be in attack mode. It would be great if Smart didn’t miss all of his three-pointers, but beggars can’t be choosers. In a contract year, Smart will be asked to defend the best guys, run the offense for large stretches, and continue to be the same old Marcus that makes the winning plays at the end of games. For Smart, we call that a normal Wednesday.

Along with Smart’s role, don’t be surprised to see more Irving-Rozier-Smart lineups. Stevens loves his three-guard lineups, and the move would also alleviate the need to put too many minutes on Tatum too soon. Rozier had some impressive stretches throughout the Cleveland game, but he’ll need to be more aggressive on the offensive end and continue to make his presence felt. He has the athleticism to get to the rim and the shooting ability to stretch the floor, and the hope would be that in an extended role he could do it consistently.

3. Aggressive Al Horford

The Celtics are going to need Al Horford to be an impact player on the offensive end, both with his playmaking and scoring. Guys like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum need others to make the game easier for them, and Horford’s ability to be a secondary playmaker will be a big step towards that goal. This position isn’t unfamiliar for Horford, but he now no longer has the option of fading into a role as the strong third option. It’s possible that the between Brown/Morris/Tatum there’s enough scoring to take the pressure off of Horford in that department, but that’s something that could fluctuate from game to game. Regardless, Horford will need to do what every teammate on his team has ever asked him to do: everything.

Boston is still probably a playoff team, and with the weakened East, getting as far as the second round wouldn’t be a shocker either. The Celtics still have too much talent, and Irving/Horford will be good enough to get them by most games against teams not in the top six. Though the Celtics are relying on young players (outside of Tatum), guys like Smart, Rozier, and Brown are players with NBA experience who have been working their butts off for an opportunity to earn an expanded role. These aren’t the circumstances around which anyone wants to get a promotion, but this is the NBA, and you don’t get to choose when your time comes in this league—it just does.