The Boston Celtics entered the 2017-18 NBA season with sky-high expectations. After adding Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum last season’s No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference had their eyes on the NBA Finals this season.
That was the case until there was 6:45 left in the first quarter on opening night 2017 in Cleveland. Irving and the Celtics held an early 12-9 lead over Lebron James and the Cavaliers when Irving threw an alley-oop to Hayward. Hayward fell to the floor awkwardly dislocating his left ankle and fracturing his tibia less than six minutes into his Celtics debut. Hayward now faces a long road to recovery, and the Celtics will give him all the time he needs to get back on the floor.
While Hayward works to get back on the floor, the team pushes on without their free agent signing. They found themselves down 18 points to the Cavaliers and fought back to take the league, only to lose in the final seconds 102-99. After Hayward went down, the team’s young players had to step up and fill in for their injured teammate.
Nineteen-year-old Tatum scored 14 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in his first NBA game after looking overwhelmed at the beginning of the game. Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier, who are both 23, showed the ability to bring the ball up the court and play off the ball in Brad Stevens offense and 20-year-old Jaylen Brown looks to have made a significant jump in his second year in the NBA.
It is easy to forget after three straight Finals appearances that Irving himself is only 25 years old and is still developing his game.
The Celtics were one of the five worst rebounding teams last season, and they didn’t do anything to help change that. The roster only really has one center, Aron Baynes, but they prefer playing small-ball with Al Horford at the five. It’s easy for Celtics fans to get caught up in the versatility of players like Brown, Smart and Horford, but if they can’t secure the boards over the course of the season, switchability won’t matter.
Last week, I gave my season predictions on this column, and I had the Celtics grabbing the number one seed and taking the Cavs to Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals. That dream is all but crushed now. Boston could realistically fall out of the top three teams in the East this year, but in the long term, this season will be key in terms of developing the young talent on this roster.
It is clear Kyrie is Boston’s guy. When he asked to be traded from Cleveland, he made it clear that he wanted his own team so he could be the number one option and this is the year he will be able to prove he can lead a team to the playoffs.
He doesn’t have Lebron or Kevin Love this year to take any credit away from him and we will see if the same Cavs Kyrie with ice in his veins in the playoffs will show up night in and night out for the Celtics.
But don’t get me wrong, Stevens won’t let this turn into the type of one-man hero ball we saw from Russell Westbrook in OKC last season. Stevens knows this is the perfect opportunity to get Kyrie comfortable in the offense and get their young players ready for multiple title runs in the near future.
Smart is playing for a contract extension and will look to fill in the majority of role Hayward would have played this season. He will be asked to do a lot of different things going forward, and if he does well, the Celtics will have to pay him what he deserves. Tatum will have plenty of minutes now to refine his game for the NBA and see him develop into the Paul Pierce level talent some expect him to.
Rozier can establish himself as the team’s backup point guard on a Final’s team in the future. And most importantly Brown will be forced to guard the team’s best guy night in and night out. He showed flashes of elite three and D play in a lesser role last season but his more significant role on both sides of the floor this season will put him in the conversation for most improved player.
Though this injury to Hayward is a crushing blow for a team with so much hope and excitement surrounding them entering this season, in the long term, these young players being thrown into the fire earlier than expected will be good for the organization. Every game, every minute these guys play is preparing them for the Celtics to take down the Warriors in 2020 and beyond.