BOSTON — For the Celtics, life without the injured Gordon Hayward is going to get worse before it gets better.
They know it. Their opponents know it. And Boston fans will see it before their very eyes. For the first part of this season, there is likely going to be an unwelcome flashback to the Celtics before Isaiah Thomas came to town, when wins weren’t assumed.
There have been signs of the determination of this group in the wake of the Hayward left ankle catastrophe of Tuesday night. They battled back in Cleveland to take a second-half lead and led in the closing minutes before LeBron James and company closed them out in the final 60 seconds.
Wednesday night, in the home opener, they used the spirit of Hayward’s pregame video message minutes before surgery to take a lead in the first quarter. Despite falling behind 58-53 at the half, they came out in the third quarter and seemed to find more mojo, outscoring Milwaukee 27-18 to take an 80-76 lead into the fourth.
But as was the case the night before in Cleveland, they just didn’t have the juice down the stretch to pull off what would’ve been an emotional tribute-style win in Hayward’s honor. They have lost to two projected quality playoff opponents to start the season.
But the cold, hard facts are there for everyone to see.
Kyrie Irving has clearly struggled in the first two games to find his place in the Brad Stevens system. With or without Hayward, this was probably going to be the case as he transitioned to a team without LeBron. Now, without Hayward, Irving is going to have to find out how much of the scoring load he will have to take on - or can handle - while trying to run the offense.
As he showed last year with Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford is a gifted player and legit All-Star caliber force on this roster. But Irving is going to need time to find that rhythm with the big man that Thomas thrived in for the better part of last season. Horford fed off Thomas last season more than vice versa. This is really what transformed Horford into a force as the playoffs approached. Horford is obviously not LeBron and Irving is going to need to find out how best to play on the court with him to maximize the potential of both. Don’t expect that to happen quickly.
"We don't got time for Square 1, I'll tell you that right now,” Irving said after Wednesday’s 108-100 loss to the Bucks. “It's time to just figure it out. And we'll be all right."
They will, but not immediately. The fact of the matter is the Celtics ARE at Square 1 but they DO have time to figure this out. Yes, every game in an 82-game season matters but if this were going to happen, losing a player like Hayward before the team ever got accustomed to playing with him is probably the time since the Celtics have a long season to figure it out.
Then there’s Marcus Smart. Thrust into the starting lineup in the first game without Hayward, the fourth -year guard disappointed at the lack of an extension will have to get familiar with a role not expected of him coming into the season. He is now essentially serving the role of Avery Bradley and will be asked to score and defend like Bradley did. Defense comes naturally to Smart but the offense will be sporadic, as witnessed by his 5-of-16 shooting (0-for-4 from deep) in the opener and a 4-for-13 effort against the Bucks on Wednesday.
Together, Irving and Smart were 11-for-38 as a starting backcourt Wednesday. This is a big problem. With Hayward’s projected 21 points and 4 assists per game gone, the Celtics are going to need both of their guards to score on a more consistent basis. Irving has the skill set to score 30 a night but Smart will need to find ways of creating his own offense and not rely as much on his perimeter game.
The brightest spot in the preseason and in the first two games has been third-year guard Terry Rozier. With Smart thrust - for the time being - into a starter’s role, it’s Rozier who has the chance to finally show how he can run the offense and use his extraordinary quickness to be a disruptive force. He played 27 minutes off the bench Wednesday, going 6-for-12 with seven rebounds, six assists and two steals. He is unquestionably the stabilizing force off Stevens’ bench for now. But again, don’t expect him to do it all.
“I’ve got to come off the bench and step up, and make sure the guys that are coming off the bench with me – make sure we’re on the same page,” Rozier said. “I told a couple guys it was my fault that we weren’t capitalizing on a lot of plays. I’ve got to do a better job at making sure everybody is in the right position, and yelling out the plays.”
Jaylen Brown is certainly an X-factor in all of this. The second-year wing out of Cal has played to his No. 3 overall draft pick level in his first two games, leading the team in scoring against the Cavs and Bucks. He has worked on his 3-point shooting and he looks comfortable shooting it. After making just 2-of-9 Tuesday, he bounced back and was 2-of-3 on Wednesday.
Brown is acting and talking like a leader, a bold and welcome move for a team in need of someone to take the reins and tell everyone it’s going to be OK.
“I think we have high expectations for Jaylen,” Brad Stevens said after Wednesday’s contest. “I think that he’s a good player; I think he’ll continue to grow on both ends. But we’re going to ask him to do an awful lot, so that’s part of it.”
This brings us to the essence of what is going to make this Celtics team sink or swim this season. The understandable pity and shock can last one or two days. These players are human. But the time for facing the cold, hard reality begins now.
A roster that was already challenged in proven depth following the trade for Irving is now borderline depleted. Aron Baynes is playing after suffering a hyperextended knee in preseason and Marcus Morris has a knee injury that has forced him to miss the first week. Brad Stevens will no doubt give the Celtics a boost with his established game-planning and scheming skills. But it will be up to the players to figure it out on the practice court and in games.
The Celtics are left with the unenviable task of turning to a pair of men who have not yet turned 21 in their starting lineup. Brown (who turns 21 on Oct. 24) and Jayson Tatum are both No. 3 overall picks and both have the ability to flash brilliance. But these are not Rising Stars skill contests or an All-Star Game. The Celtics have 80 more games to figure out where they fit best, either out of necessity or design.
Again, this is not going to happen overnight. Stevens is going to spend a good portion of the first month of the season figuring out the best rotations to complement Irving and Al Horford. What you see now is almost certainly not what Hayward will return to if he does find a way to somehow return to playing in late March or April.
“Yeah, it’s going to be that way,” Stevens said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys. I’m hopeful that we can find the right combinations; we obviously didn’t anticipate going maybe this far into the bench this early. But I thought some of those guys did a pretty good job.”
Right now, it’s probably a good idea to get really familiar with the likes of Abdel Nader, Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis. Even if the Celtics bring in a street free agent or make a trade for an establish veteran wing, they are going to need to find out what they have in the younger players not named Brown and Tatum.
“I thought Nader did a good job,” Stevens added. “I thought that Semi provided some good minutes defensively. And then I thought Theis, when he came in, did a pretty good job. The part that we’ve got to find is a combination that works all together, especially when we go to the bench right now. So, we’ll find it.”
The Celtics, as currently constituted, are at best a 45-win club, that is if everything goes their way. If it doesn’t, then - as Stevens often reminded us last season - there’s not much of a margin of error from middle of the pack in the East to missing the playoffs altogether.
“There’s no need to panic,” Brown concluded. “Brad’s right, we got a lot of plays to clean up and a lot of stuff to get better at, but that’s the beauty of it. We got a really good group and a lot of young guys – we’re going to move forward and take that challenge. We’re going to win some games. We’re going to win a lot of games here in Boston.”