How Celtics move on without Gordon Hayward

Gordon Hayward underwent successful surgery on Wednesday during the Celtics’ second loss in as many nights to start what was a promising season less than a week ago. This news doesn’t mean much, other than that it sucks for the All-Star forward and everyone who watched a uniquely gifted player sport green for all of five minutes before suffering a gruesome left leg injury. You never hear a team announce that a player has undergone an unsuccessful surgery.

The Celtics are without arguably their best player, and suddenly this is Kyrie Irving’s team. That’s not the worst thing. They have Al Horford, young studs Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have looked as advertised in the early going, and Terry Rozier just might be a revelation. And the Eastern Conference is terrible. This is still a playoff team, possibly even a No. 4 or 5 seed.

It’s also not the best thing.

“As you can see, it’s not an ideal situation,” Irving said after his team blew a fourth-quarter lead for the second straight night. “So as cliché as it is, everybody’s going to probably say that’s life. But it is, man. Shit happens. And excuse my language for everybody here, but it does.”

The only questions now, as far as the Celtics are concerned: How long is Hayward out? And how in the hell do they fill the void left not only by one of the game’s premier wing players, but also by Avery Bradley, the two-way talent who they traded to pave way for Hayward’s contract?

HOW LONG IS HAYWARD OUT?

As for the first question, Hayward’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, told ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski that his client was unlikely to return this season from the dislocated ankle and fractured tibia he suffered against the Cavaliers on opening night. That’s the bad news.

Prior to the surgery, there was some optimism within the organization that the injury, which at the time appeared season-ending — if not career-threatening — may have looked worse than it actually was. There were no torn ligaments or blood-vessel damage, and the break was clean, all of which are “positive” signs in terms of the ankle and tibia’s ability to heal fully and quickly.

A source with direct knowledge of both Hayward’s pre-surgery condition and the healing process of similar injuries said of the possibility he returns this season, “You never know. It’s not like an ACL.” While torn ligaments must be extensively repaired and rehabbed, tibia fractures and ankle dislocations merely have to be reset and heal. In other words, it’s a waiting game.

Still, doctors were hesitant to assign a timeline to Hayward’s return before conducting the surgery and discovering the extent of nerve damage around the ankle. Post-surgery, Bartelstein informed the Boston Herald, “Things went perfectly in the surgery,” and “there’s nothing they found that they didn’t expect to find.” Hayward’s agent reiterated, “There’s no timetable,” but expectations that the All-Star could return to the Celtics before the playoffs are “unrealistic.”

Former Celtics forward Shavlik Randolph suffered an almost identical injury during a 2006 practice. “It’s about a 4-6 month recovery,” he told ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman. “The ligaments take 6-8 weeks and the tibia was about three months to heal in all the places it broke. Ironically, I had the same injury and as bad as it looks it does heal back to 100 percent and does so surprisingly fast. I think there’s a chance he could be back this season if he really pushed it. The team will be cautious to bring him back too fast, but I think he could by the end of the season. Maybe not back to full 100 percent by then, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he can and does play.”

That’s the good news.

There are reasons for Hayward to return as soon as he’s able. Wanting to play some freaking basketball this season is one, and the Celtics needing him to contend for a spot in the Finals is another. And there are reasons for Hayward to forego the entire year. Avoiding any potential risk of re-injury before he’s 100 percent healthy is one, and the Celtics protecting their $128 million asset is another. Agents are prone to favor long-term value over short-term gains at all costs.

“I’m going to be all right,” Hayward said in a pre-recorded video that aired on the TD Garden’s Jumbotron just before tip at the home opener. “It’s hurting me that I can’t be there for the home opener. I want nothing more just to be with my teammates and walk out onto that floor tonight.”

Thunder forward Paul George, who suffered a horrific leg injury of his own during a USA Basketball scrimmage (at which Hayward was present) in August 2014, returned sparingly with six games left in the 2014-15 season — eight months after his surgery. His injury was similar to Hayward’s, in that the break was clean and he avoided ligament damage, and dissimilar insofar as he suffered an open tibia-fibula fracture across both bones that punctured his lower right leg.

A similar timeline would keep Hayward sidelined for the remainder of the year. By all accounts, he will return to full strength, whether that’s the end of this season, the beginning of next, or longer on down the line. But George relayed some sobering news in that regard on Wednesday.

“You’ll always think about it,” said George, who texted Hayward upon seeing the injury and called him that night. “I have a bump on my leg for the rest of my life, so I always think about it. It’s always there. Then, just being on the court, I’m not as explosive, I’m not as bouncy as I was. It’s something I’ve got to live with now. Thankfully, I was able to gain mentally and learn the game a different way, spending my time off, but it’s always going to be a part of his story. …

“It’s a little bit of everything,” he added. “It’s physical. It’s mental. I’m sure emotionally he’s in a different state of mind. It’s just bad timing for that. Honestly, it’s just hard to get over that.”

Hayward was already a cerebral player capable of impacting games in myriad ways, but there’s no doubt his explosiveness and athleticism raised his play another level. The backdoor oop on which he suffered the injury was a play the Jazz ran countless times for him. Will Hayward reach those heights again? Look to George, who is a more efficient player in the two years since his return and an All-Star both seasons. But even he admits there are obstacles still to overcome.

Hayward has been doubted at every level — as a high schooler when then-Butler coach Brad Stevens discovered him, in college as the boy wonder underdog against Duke, and following an underwhelming rookie campaign after being selected by the Jazz one spot ahead of George in the lottery. It is for those reasons that people closest to him believe he will come back stronger.

“He’s very special,” said Irving. “He’s going to fight like hell to get back on the floor. There’s a fire burning inside of him already. We see the amount of support that guy got. That should tell you the type of person he is and what he represents — not only to the Celtics but to the rest of the league. We want him to get back healthy, but we also understand that his health comes first. And he’s going to do everything possible to get back on the floor. And it’s our job to lift him up.”

Late Thursday, almost 24 hours after Hayward entered the surgical room, the Celtics issued their first injury update since Stevens revealed the dislocated ankle and broken tibia after the season-opening loss. “No timetable has been set for Hayward’s return,” the release said, “but he is expected to make a full recovery.” The words “season-ending” didn’t appear in the statement.

HOW IN THE HELL DO THEY FILL THE VOID?

While the Celtics are lifting Hayward’s spirits off the floor, Stevens must figure out a way to hold it down on the court. Shit happens. The schedule goes on, so they might as well make the best of the 70-plus remaining games, especially since Irving is only under contract for this season and next, and having the Lakers’ first-round pick in hand alleviates any incentive to be worse.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: There’s no replacing Hayward. His get-in-where-he-fits-in game complemented Irving and Horford like few others in the league could, and there isn’t anyone else on the Celtics roster like him. You will hear clichés about everyone stepping up to fill the 25-5-5 nightly production line void, and while that may work in regular-season spurts, winning in the playoffs is entirely reliant on stars who can exert their will for 40 minutes a night.

The Celtics spent the preseason installing an offense predicated on constant ball movement flowing through their three stars, screening and handing off, rolling and slashing, pushing and pulling the defense until an opening or favorable matchup revealed itself. They will attempt to do the same sans Hayward, if only because Stevens has run a similar system since he arrived in Boston, but losing one of their best playmakers and shooters will force some changes against a defense that will feel less pressure to fight over screens and help off others to stop Hayward.

In the short-term, everyone tried to do it alone in Hayward’s absence. The Celtics showed remarkable resiliency to erase an 18-point lead against the Cavs in the immediate aftermath of the injury, but they blew fourth-quarter leads against Cleveland and Milwaukee on back-to-back nights because individuals — Irving and Marcus Smart, most notably — tried to do too much in isolation in the waning moments. Hero ball, as ex-Celtics coach Doc Rivers always dubbed it.

Also, Brown and Tatum have exceeded expectations in the early going, but the Celtics will have to rely heavily on their two young studs, and with inexperience comes inconsistency. In their search for answers, the C’s have also turned to rookies Abdel Nader, Jabari Bird, Daniel Theis, Semi Ojeleye and Guerschon Yabusele (that’s a lot of rookies) with games still in the balance.

Making matters worse, Rozier conceded that the newer Celtics weren’t even up to speed on the existing offensive scheme. “We messed up on a lot of plays,” Rozier admitted after the C’s were outscored 32-20 in the fourth quarter of a 108-100 loss to the Bucks. “That can’t happen. Like coach said after the game: We’re professionals, so we better learn the plays or we won’t play.”

Asked for a solution, Irving quipped, “Learn the plays.”

That may be oversimplifying it, but it speaks to the amount of work the Celtics face to evolve from a three-star system. The NBA’s new lengthened schedule allows for more practice time throughout the season, and thankfully Stevens has a wealth of knowledge about how to adjust.

“The concern for the individual takes precedence,” said Stevens. “No question about it. And the next thing we’ll be working through is how are we going to play? Because we do have to make some quick tweaks to how we play because he’s obviously a large part of our preseason focus.”

We’re not six months removed from the Celtics running a similar motion offense, only one designed to maximize an incredibly efficient high-usage point guard. Isaiah Thomas ran pick-and-rolls with Horford, and when opposing defenses attacked, the C’s ran him off screens and handoffs, where he was just as effective, scoring better than a point per possession.

There’s no reason Irving can’t do the same. He is equally dangerous in the pick-and-roll and just as effective in other playtypes. This is the opportunity he wanted when he requested a trade. He wanted his game to evolve under a coach who could guide the transformation, free from LeBron James’ shadow. In an offense designed to run through LeBron, Irving was more accustomed to playing in isolation, but he was every bit the scorer Thomas was, albeit in far fewer opportunities off screens and handoffs and as a spot-up shooter. (Thomas averaged 1.15 points per possession on 655 of those plays last season; Irving averaged 1.10 PPP on 333 such plays.)

Anyone who doubts Irving’s ability to elevate his game when the spotlight shines on him should rewatch the last two NBA Finals to see how he carved up the Warriors in all manner of ways. Heck, Irving took a knife to the Celtics in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, scoring 42 points in victory when the Celtics were threatening to even the series with LeBron in foul trouble.

And Stevens should be able to create even more opportunities for Irving.

Suddenly, the expectations for these Celtics swing from what might have been with Hayward to what was with Thomas — 53 wins, the No. 1 playoff speed and a conference finals showing. That’s not such a bad place to be, given the circumstances and the promise that Hayward will return next year alongside a handful of young guns who will be more seasoned in his absence.

The Celtics still have Horford. They still have Smart. Marcus Morris, once he returns from a sore left knee, is this year’s Jae Crowder. Aron Baynes may not space the floor like Amir Johnson, but he’s a better rebounder and rim protector. Find me someone who wouldn’t swap Kelly Olynyk’s erratic contributions for the same from Jayson Tatum and all his untapped potential.

Now, with these recalibrated expectations, the only player you’re replacing from last year’s rotation is Bradley — no easy task, given his All-Defensive ability and ever-improving offensive game — but the Celtics have two candidates primed to take the reins: Brown and Rozier.

Brown’s line through three games (17.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.2 steals, one assist) is almost identical to Bradley’s production last season (16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.2 steals), save for the shooting efficiency (50.6 true shooting percentage for Brown vs. 54.8 Bradley), and Brown has acclimated himself well on defense, especially with some tough assignments early.

If Brown can’t maintain that consistency, consider Rozier, whose play has been the biggest Celtics surprise of the season’s first week. He’s averaging 12.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists and two steals in almost 10 fewer minutes than Bradley did last season, and he’s shooting better than 40 percent from 3 after doing the same in both summer league and preseason.

“The exciting thing for guys is they have an opportunity to step up and contribute,” Stevens said after Wednesday’s loss to Milwaukee, “and I think they want to do so for two reasons: No. 1 is they want to because it’s an opportunity for them; No. 2 is they do want to play well for him.”

The Celtics may not be able to replace Hayward’s starpower and everything that comes with it, but between Brown and Rozier, they should be able to make up for the loss of Bradley. With Irving and Hayward at the top of the bill, Morris and Baynes providing the muscle, Smart doing Smart things, Brown and Rozier filling in, and Tatum and the rest of the rookies progressing under a coach who made his name on a player development, there’s a real chance these C’s will be every bit as competitive as the Wizards and Raptors, same as they were a year ago.

And if Hayward returns earlier than expected, well, that’s gravy. How’s that for silver linings.

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