BOSTON — Seven months after shattering his ankle six minutes into the regular-season opener in Cleveland, Gordon Hayward, donning a white hooded sweatshirt under a black blazer, walked almost unnoticed through the TD Garden concourse after watching from the end of the bench as the Cavaliers broke his Celtics with six minutes left in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Before reaching the exit, Hayward stopped when he saw Marcus Morris’ twin brother and his 8-month-old daughter. After some small talk, Markieff asked the question on everyone’s mind.
“Getting better slowly,” said Hayward. “It just sucks watching, but it is what it is.”
Around the corner, Celtics coach Brad Stevens stood alone. He looked as flustered as he had all season, which is to say he stared blankly into the black curtains before him, shaking his head ever so slightly, mildly annoyed that his final postgame press conference was delayed by the conference championship trophy presentation taking place on the other side of the staging.
J.R. Smith passed them both carrying the silver trophy. Stevens and Hayward had seen this movie together before, watching Duke cut the nets in the 2010 NCAA title game. That year the C’s stopped LeBron James from reaching an NBA Finals for the last time. Everything has changed since, except for LeBron’s brilliance and the Butler duo’s unfinished championship business.
LeBron paused to pay his respects to Hayward before rejoining his teammates in celebration. Hayward walked the opposite direction, stopped briefly by ex-Magic guard Dennis Scott, now of NBA TV. “Feeling better. Just sucks watching,” Hayward said again, before reaching the exit.
A few hours earlier, injured Celtics backup point guard Shane Larkin said pregame of injured C’s starting point guard Kyrie Irving, “He’s loving being in Boston. He likes what our team has done. Every time he walks back into the locker room, he’s like, ‘You guys are an amazing bunch of guys.’ He’s enjoying the entire thing. He wishes he could be out there. Unfortunately, he can’t.”
The promise of Hayward and Irving’s returns are among the silver linings in the wake of the 87-79 loss, which will be less deflating once we properly put into perspective how wild it was for a team of 20-somethings to fill a void left by two fallen All-Stars and push the game’s greatest player further than anybody since an aging Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen nearly toppled him in 2012 — but none of this will come until the immediate sting of this loss subsides.
In the hallway between locker rooms after the game, Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren and LeBron’s business partner Maverick Carter boiled the game down to it essence.
“Two games in a row,” Carter said of LeBron, “he doesn’t come out for a f***ing minute.” Carter asked how the C’s finished from 3-point range. Zarren relayed the devastating 7-for-39 news. “The Cavs were bad, too,” said Carter, and he was right. They shot 9-for-35 from distance.
“But ours were open,” countered Zarren, who recounted their 4-for-28 finish, all but a few uncontested, after a less woeful 3-for-11 start that was enough to stake the Celtics to a 12-point lead three minutes into the second quarter. As great as LeBron was and as maddening as Jeff Green was — and were they ever great and maddening — the C’s left a win at the 3-point line.
Behind Zarren and Carter was the Celtics’ locker room, where a once-deafening Garden had fallen silent. In one corner, Marcus Smart put earbuds in and stared at his text messages to fill the dead air. In another, Terry Rozier dumped well-worn sneakers into a trash bag. Between them, Jaylen Brown barely picked his head up long enough to shake the team chaplain’s hand as he said his goodbyes for the summer. The three of them combined to shoot 8-of-42 from the floor, 3-for-26 from 3, and just an average night from any one of them would’ve been enough.
Across the hallway, the Cavs sang Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” so loud you could hear them clearly from behind closed doors. You would’ve thought they won a title if somebody hadn’t yelled “Bring on the West” at the end. Inside, a shirt with Warriors stitched above two zeroes hung in JR Smith’s locker on one end of the room, and LeBron sat wrapped in ice on the other.
Even after amassing 35 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists — numbers that don’t begin to address the impact he had on a game the Cavs trailed for all but 17 seconds of the game’s first 31 minutes — the No. 1 topic of LeBron’s locker room banter was Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum.
“He’s so good,” LeBron said of Tatum before repeating it three more times.
You always wonder how people will respond to the pressure of a Game 7 against LeBron James. This is the biggest game I’ve ever covered, and I was nervous about whether I could properly capture the night. A Boston crowd that was lined up around the building an hour and a half before the game and filling the Garden with intensity even before the national anthem grew tense when the Cavs stole the lead late in the third quarter. I can’t imagine how a 20-year old playing the game might meet the moment. But Jayson Tatum did, even as his teammates wilted.
During pregame warmups, Tatum sat with a pair of Celtics assistant coaches on the bench. They were watching clips from the series when one of LeBron’s many blocks came through the rotation. “You gotta dunk that shit,” one Celtics staffer said, “You can’t serve it up on a platter.”
So, when LeBron’s ridiculous right-handed bank shot — floating to the left of the basket — gave Cleveland a four-point lead with seven minutes remaining in the final frame, Stevens called a timeout and then called on Tatum, who threw down an even more ridiculous dunk over LeBron.
“That f***ing Tatum boomed me,” LeBron recounted in the locker room afterward. “He got me.”
LeBron described in tremendous detail how Tatum took off on two feet, waited for his challenge, and then snapped the dunk before he could get his timing straight. “And he bumped me, too.”
On the C’s ensuing possession, Tatum drilled a step-back 3-pointer over George Hill’s contest. The rookie’s personal 5-0 run gave the Celtics a 72-71 lead with 6:04 left. That lead last all of 20 seconds before evaporating into a double-digit deficit. You take silver linings where you can get them, especially when a smiling JR Smith bumps into you with the silver trophy in his hands.