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Without Gordon Hayward, Brad Stevens has pieced together another puzzle

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In the wake of Gordon Hayward’s injury, the young core of Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown have stepped up.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Gordon Hayward is going to be a major piece to the puzzle when he returns. He was signed to be a cornerstone for the franchise and that’s still true. But when he surfaced from his rehab to join the Celtics for their team photo, it came with mixed emotions. You can read it on his face:

Even though he’ll be a big part of the future, in the moment, he seemed out of place for this team, like a puzzle piece for another puzzle. Brad Stevens has definitively said that “he’s not playing this year” and maybe more importantly, he’s already figured out how to play with him.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that the Celtics can and have replaced Hayward. In his final season in Utah, Hayward had made his first All Star team and was an all-around wing in the mold of guys like LeBron James, Paul George, and Jimmy Butler, players who can facilitate as playmakers, score the ball in a variety of ways, and defend players just like them.

He was exceptional with the ball in his hand in pick-and-rolls and become a knock down shooter on kick outs and coming off screens. Most teams would crumble with that seismic a loss in the first game of the year, but with over three-quarters of the regular season completed, Brad Stevens has pieced together a rotation that has filled the Hayward-sized hole in the roster.

At the beginning of the season, the team struggled on offense without either Kyrie Irving or Al Horford on the floor. In 628 minutes sans All Stars before the break, the Celtics averaged an anemic 100.8 OffRtg. This is a burden that ideally Hayward would have alleviated. Having a third star would have allowed Stevens to keep at least one if not two of his best players on the floor at all times. But since ASW, the duo of Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier have flourished without Irving and Horford, spearheading the bench to a 130.8 OffRtg in 53 minutes. It’s small sample size theater, but the two 24-year-olds have proven to be a formidable duo. Smart and Rozier have racked up 51 assists over the last six games where as Irving and Horford have manage 47 combined.

Boston Celtics v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Pairing them with Marcus Morris, Greg Monroe, and Daniel Theis has helped. Where Horford complements Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum by spacing the floor and giving them room to slash, Smart and Rozier have worked interchangeably as a tandem with one being the ballhandler and the other as the swingman in a more traditional inside-out game. Neither are great dribble drivers or finishers at the rim, but rim dives off PnR’s by Monroe and Theis have freed up the perimeter for them and Morris. The trio has shot 66 threes since the break; that’s more than Irving/Brown/Tatum combined.

Hayward would have taken his share of perimeter shots. He made nearly 40% of his five three-point attempts last season with the Jazz. But who would you take shots away from (aside from Smart)? Tatum seems to have finally recovered from a pinky injury he dislocated back in December. Brown has become a respectable shooter from behind the arc after hitting less than 30% brom the college three. Rozier and Morris have stayed above the 35% Mendoza line all year. After that January slump that included a four-game losing streak when the Celtics’ 3FG% cratered at 34.8%, Boston has hit 41.8% from behind the arc since the All Star break.

Hayward would have made a difference on the defensive end, too. His 6’8 frame can guard multiple positions and he’ll be a key cog in Boston’s switching defense. However, Saturday night’s game in Houston showcased Boston’s ability to throw multiple players at an opposing team’s best player. Here’s how Harden fared in isolation (not counting transition or offensive rebounding opportunities) against the Celtics’ wave of defenders:

Defending James Harden

James Harden FGM FGA
James Harden FGM FGA
vs. Jaylen Brown 1 3
vs. Marcus Smart 0 3
vs. Kyrie Irving 0 3
vs. Al Horford 1 3
vs. Marcus Morris 0 1

Hayward would have been another defender in Stevens’ stable of athletic wings, but right now, the Celtics have enough horses to run with the best in the West. They’ve won slugfests against the Rockets and Warriors at home and been competitive in shootouts in Houston and Golden State. Brown has become the de facto defender against opposing teams’ best players with Smart tagging in off the bench.

Hayward’s absence has been more butterfly than ripple, having a transformative effect on the development of the younger players. Brown and Tatum have turned into attacking strikers making diagonal runs in soccer off of Horford and Irving. Smart and Rozier have blossomed as dueling point guards who aren’t really prototypical point guards. It’s impossible to predict where the young core would be today if Hayward was healthy, but credit is due Stevens, his staff, and the players for stepping up and not letting Hayward’s injury turn this into a lost season.