Blakely: Here's what Gordon Hayward's injury means to the Celtics

Blakely: Here's what Gordon Hayward's injury means to the Celtics

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The season could not have gotten off to a better start for Gordon Hayward. 

He was scoring at a clip we hadn’t seen since his days in Utah. 

His playmaking and rebounding were on a noticeable upswing as well. 

And the team was winning; winning at a level we had not seen under seventh-year coach Brad Stevens.

And just like that, all of the upbeat, optimistic progress Hayward has made was taken away following a broken left hand injury suffered in the first half of Boston’s game against San Antonio on Saturday. 

His injury is without question a setback for the Celtics who came into Saturday’s game with a 6-1 record and sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings. 

Because of his impact on several fronts, Hayward’s injury - likely to keep him out a few weeks - doesn’t hurt the Celtics any more in one statistical category than another. 

But it does deal a blow to the balanced, elite-level play on several fronts that Hayward has been bringing to the table this season, a season in which he has looked to be a better player than he was when the Celtics signed him in 2017. 

A key to Boston’s fast start is the above-average contributions they have gotten from a number of players. 

But of the players on the Celtics roster, Hayward has easily been the biggest surprise of them all. 

The fact that he’s contributing in so many categories isn’t all that surprising. 

But he has been able to do it while still meshing well with teammates Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker who were both expected to shoulder a considerably larger amount of the load than Hayward. 

Hayward is by all accounts Boston’s No. 3 option behind Walker and Tatum. 

And yet he’s delivering face-of-the-franchise production when you look at his scoring (20.3 points per game) in addition to delivering 7.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists while connecting on 56.4 percent of his shots from the field and 44.4 percent of his 3-point attempts. 

Replacing that kind of production won’t be easy, particularly when it comes within the flow of the offense and not necessarily from a ton of plays being called for him. 

His absence will put a greater burden of producing on the shoulders of Walker and Tatum, in addition to increasing the need for Marcus Smart to step up and impact the game more along the lines of a two-way player rather than a defensive stopper who gets a few points here and there. 

But as we’ve seen already this season, the Celtics are a team whose strength lies more in their collective sum than any individual parts. 

That will be put to the test for however long they will be without Hayward, providing yet another challenge for a Celtics team that thus far this season, has shown the ability to meet time and time again. 

MORE BLAKELY: Is Hayward as good as he's ever been?>>>

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Will any other Celtics join Kemba Walker at All-Star weekend?

Will any other Celtics join Kemba Walker at All-Star weekend?

Kemba Walker’s spot in this year’s All-Star game never seemed in doubt, but after he was formally named a starting guard out of the Eastern Conference on Thursday night, the lingering question becomes will Walker have any Celtics company in Chicago?

Walker is the biggest reason for Boston’s 29-14 record midway through the 2019-20 season but he’s routinely praised young teammates Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown for their role in the Celtics’ success. Asked if he desired a sidekick in Chicago, Walker made the case that both of Boston’s young players should be with him.

"They’ve been playing super well. They’ve improved so much over the course of their young careers,” said Walker. "They both definitely deserve the opportunity to take part in that game.”

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The 15 Eastern Conference coaches will vote this weekend for seven reserves to join Walker, Trae Young, Pascal Siakam, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Joel Embiid as the East player pool in this year’s event. Coaches cannot vote for their own players in reserve balloting, which might open a window for both Tatum and Brown to earn higher totals.

Still, the talent pool is pretty deep, especially given the logjam of teams atop the conference. Boston’s young wing tandem will be trying to muscle spots away fro the likes of Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, Miami’s Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, Indiana’s Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis, Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris, and Washington’s Bradley Beal.

That’s at least 11 players in consideration for seven spots. Even if, say, Indiana coach Nate McMillan can’t vote for either of his two in-house candidates, he’s still got no shortage of options. The fear for Boston is that their wing duo ends up splitting votes, opening the door for a team with only one surefire candidate.

Reserves will be announced next Thursday night. Celtics coach Brad Stevens recently offered a glimpse into how he tackles the reserve voting process.

"I start with a couple things from a statistical standpoint, obviously, but then look at how their teams are playing, if they’ve won or not,” said Stevens. "And then the tiebreaker for me is often my fear factor when we’re getting ready to play against them.

"But most of the time it’s like 10 or 12 people for those seven spots. That doesn’t even include me getting to vote for [his own players] — I don’t get to vote for ours. So good players don’t make it every year. And that’s just part of it.”

It’s hard to make a case for Boston to have three representatives, regardless of how good that trio has been this season. Walker, Tatum, and Brown are all still averaging 20+ points per game this season and each has had prolonged stretches of All-Star-caliber play.

The debate about whether Tatum or Brown should ultimately get the nod if Boston only gets two stars has been spirited. Tatum hasn’t shot the ball as efficiently as he has earlier in his career but he still has the best on/off splits on the team and has turned into a real two-way force.

Brown has been much better than most anticipated and has made such obvious strides in his game, especially with his ball-handling and playmaking.

This reporter has maintained that there isn’t a wrong choice between the two wings and strong cases can be made for both sides. And if Boston had the best record in the East, lobbying for three players might be easier.

Ultimately, we’d vote Tatum if forced to choose, in part because of the so-called “fear factor” that Stevens noted. Teams have put more attention on stopping Tatum, while Brown has been the beneficiary of quality looks when opponents key on Tatum and Walker.

All that said, Brown also deserves to be rewarded for the leaps in his game. Many dismissed Brown’s potential after a frustration-filled 2018-19 season but he’s proved this year that, whatever ceiling most perceived for him, it was simply too low.

After Wednesday’s win over the Grizzlies, Walker gushed again about what the young wing duo has done this season.

"It's so fun to watch [Tatum] and Jaylen, man. It’s so fun to be a part of their growth,” said Walker. Later he added, “[They’re] my brothers. I want to see them succeed. I want them to be at their best.

"I've had a pretty good career so far but I'm also here to help and just really get guys to another level. That's what I want to do. I want to be a part of things like that. Those two dudes, to be specific, are really special.”

There’s one other way for Walker to have some additional Celtics company with him in Chicago. Boston’s coaching staff could make the trip if Boston is in second place in the East after the games on February 2.

The Bucks have already ensured themselves the best record in the East at the All-Star break but coach Mike Budenholzer cannot coach after serving in that role last year.

The Celtics currently sit fourth in the East but only 1.5 games back of second-place Miami, a team that Boston plays next week to close out a three-game road trip. What’s more, five teams are separated by only 3 games behind the Bucks, so it’s a wide-open race.

Three All-Stars seems like a longshot for the Celtics — outside of injury replacements opening more opportunities. Boston has three deserving candidates, though, and it’s a reminder of just how good they can be when everyone is playing to their potential.

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Defense is what's fueling the Celtics' strong play of late

Defense is what's fueling the Celtics' strong play of late

BOSTON -- The Los Angeles Lakers came to town and got crushed by the Boston Celtics. 

Up next was Memphis, a red-hot team on the rise with a next-level rookie leading the way, who got one of those back-of-the-woodshed beatdowns. 

The Celtics are coming off their best back-to-back performances this season and are looking to continue that strong play away from the TD Garden with the next three games on the road, beginning with Friday night’s matchup at Orlando. 

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Indeed, there is an undeniable amount of pressure on them to continue on their winning ways. 

And the key to that success lies in their defense; specifically their ability to apply pressure at a consistent level. 

The last two games have seen the Celtics deliver the defensive hammer in a way we have not seen with this kind of consistency. 

Yes, it’s only two games. 

But here’s the thing. 

You can probably count the minutes in those two games that Boston hasn’t played with a sharp edge defensively, on the one hand. 

And the numbers only amplify how well they have ratcheted up their play at that end of the floor lately. 

In the last two games, Boston’s defense has averaged 25.0 points off turnovers which is tops in the league, 22.5 fast-break points which ranks second in the NBA in the last two games, and they are limiting opponents to just 10.0 points via fast-breaks which is the league’s fifth-lowest average in the last two games. 

Blanketing teams with pressure defensively has been something Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has been imploring his players to do all season. 

“Without any resistance, they catch it inside the three-point line or at the three-point line without any resistance, then we’re in trouble,” Stevens said. “Our best rim defense is keeping the ball away from it.”

And lately, the Celtics have done this at an elite level with their position-less brand of basketball paying dividends by being able to switch constantly defensively and not being burned by a bad matchup. 

Daniel Theis has been particularly impressive recently. 

This season, Theis has a defensive rating of 103.4 but in the last two games, his defensive rating is a strong 78.9. 

And when you start looking at Boston’s other core players, they too have seen a noticeable improvement in their defensive ratings such as Jayson Tatum (101.8 defensive rating this season, 80.2 in the last two games); Gordon Hayward (104.7 this season, 91.3 defensive rating the last two games); and Kemba Walker whose defensive rating of 108.6 has taken a major nose dive the last two games, to 94.8. 

“We have to be a defense-first kind of team; we are,” Hayward told NBC Sports Boston earlier this week. “When we let our defense leads the way for us, good things usually happen.”

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Magic, which begins Friday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, followed by tip-off at 7 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.