CLEVELAND — An opening-night capacity crowd of 20,562 people grew loud to cheer on their hometown team, and even louder to troll a former hero.
And then, ghostly silence.
Just over five minutes into his Boston Celtics career and a four-year, $128 million max contract, Gordon Hayward‘s season likely ended. He fell awkwardly in the first quarter, fracturing his left ankle in a gruesome scene that sent many on the Cleveland Cavaliers bench running.
“You can never think of the right words to say when you see something like that,” Cavs center Kevin Love said after the game. “He means a lot to this league. He’s a great player. A great dude. It was ugly. It didn’t look pretty. Now we just hope for the best and that he can recover quickly.”
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On Irving’s Shoulders
Irving and Hayward were introduced as the new faces of the Celtics just six weeks ago, each charged with scoring and playmaking responsibilities.
Entering his seventh season, Irving has blossomed into a score-first guard whose shortcomings as a distributor were eased by LeBron James’ passing instincts. With the Celtics, Hayward was essentially another version of James, a 6’8″ small forward with strong handles. Irving theoretically could have continued his shoot-first, pass-second approach.
Without Hayward, Irving’s workload becomes far greater.
No returning Boston player averaged more than the 14.0 points per game center Al Horford had last season. The 31-year-old is a nice complement for Irving, as he can shoot from all areas of the floor and help manage the offense with his above-average passing ability. But Boston can’t count on Horford to replace the 21.9 points a game Hayward scored last season. That’s on Irving and a young supporting cast.
Irving showed flashes of his ideal role versus the Cavs on opening night. After falling behind by 16 at halftime to the Cavs, Boston eventually took a fourth-quarter lead, led by Irving’s 10 points and three assists on 3-of-5 shooting from deep in the final period. In the waning seconds of the contest, Irving’s potential game-tying three-pointer fell short of the rim, altered by the outstretched arms of James.
Irving earned the nickname “Mr. Fourth Quarter” in Cleveland, but James’ gravitational pull helped. He won’t have the same luxury of a four-time MVP regularly drawing double-teams in Boston.
“He’s made so many of those tough shots right there, kind of on his sweet spot [at] that right wing, too,” James said.
In his first game as a Celtic, Irving looked more interested than usual in getting others involved.
He passed up shots to instead swing the ball out, perhaps a product of head coach Brad Stevens’ system. Irving’s overall stat line of 22 points, 10 assists, four rebounds and three steals was a great sign without Hayward by his side.
“Really hard game for a guy to have to play in, especially the first game of the season,” Stevens said. “All the emotions that go through it, how he can play at that level is beyond me.”
Irving poured in 25.2 points a night last season while sharing the court with James, Love, JR Smith and others. His scoring average was likely to rise this season, even with Hayward. Now, we could see him flirt with 30 a night.
To truly cover for Hayward, Irving has to mold himself into a willing passer as well. His 10 dimes against the Cavs was a rare feat, a mark that almost always netted Cleveland a win in years past.
Micah Adams @MicahAdams13
Kyrie’s teams have won 19 straight games in which he drops 10+ dimes, entering tonight. He gets there in first game playing with Celtics.
For all of the focus on Hayward’s offensive contributions, he’s become an admirable defender as well. Many of the talented wings Hayward normally would have been assigned to guard now fall on Brown. In turn, Irving will be asked to defend better guards, a notable weakness from his game over the past six years.
Still, there’s hope that Irving can transform himself into a capable defensive player.
“He has the skills to be a good defender, he’s so gifted athletically,” one NBA scout told Bleacher Report last season. “At times he lapses, and he just doesn’t have that motor on defense that drives him like other players do. It’s more mental than it is physical with him.”
With Cleveland, Lue could hide Irving by having him share a backcourt with Smith or Iman Shumpert. Hayward’s injury means more defensive work for everyone on the perimeter, with Irving likely having to make the biggest leap.
Lue described Irving as having “no offensive weaknesses,” but the Celtics need more from Irving on both ends.
While Irving now commands the Celtics‘ ship, he appears to have some solid (albeit young) help by his side.
Second-year swingman Jaylen Brown led Boston in scoring on Tuesday, slashing and cutting his way to 25 points and six rebounds in nearly 40 minutes. Rookie Jayson Tatum had a solid debut as the team’s starting power forward, as he chipped in 14 points, 10 rebounds and three assists in his 37 minutes.Chris Szagola/Associated Press
However, Brown is just shy of his 21st birthday. Tatum is 19, and he won’t enter his 20s until March. At 25, Irving is now tasked with being the veteran leader of a team that entered the season with Finals aspirations.
Steven’s rotation is now stretched thin with youngsters, a tough task for a team competing for a conference title. Irving may be forced to play 35-40 minutes a night based off scoring needs alone.
Outside of Irving, Brown and Marcus Morris will be counted on the most to fill Hayward’s void. Stevens has options here. He can keep his backcourt of Irving and Brown set while inserting Morris for Hayward. Morris spent 93 percent of his court time at small forward for the Detroit Pistons the past two seasons despite being more of a combo forward with the Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets earlier in his career.
If Stevens wants to go small, he can keep the 6’9″ Morris on the bench and start Marcus Smart at shooting guard next to Irving while sliding Brown to the 3. The move hurts Boston’s outside shooting and overall spacing, but gives them two quality defenders to help cover for Irving.
Horford will help Irving lead, but he isn’t capable of being the second-best player on a championship team. Smart, Terry Rozier and Aron Baynes will all be crucial pieces moving forward.
This isn’t the situation anyone wanted, but the Celtics have no other choice but to adjust and place added responsibilities on their new point guard.