BOSTON – While most of the build-up to the Celtics this season centered around Kyrie Irving and his unexpected parting of ways with Cleveland's LeBron James, there was another player whose arrival in Boston was seen by many in the organization as the linchpin to their quest to get back to the NBA Finals.
It was Gordon Hayward, the most high-profile free agent Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has been able to convince to bring his talents to Boston.
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“We came out of training camp feeling really good about our team and how far we could go,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown told NBC Sports Boston. “And Gordon was a big part of what we were going to do. But as you know, things can change real quick in the NBA.”
Hayward's season came to an end just five minutes into the season-opener at Cleveland when he landed awkwardly and dislocated his left ankle.
"Everything changed when that happened," said Celtics guard Terry Rozier.
Hayward’s injury would be the first of many for the Celtics.
While Hayward only scored two points this season, his injury – and how the Celtics handled themselves afterward – became the jumping off point for what has driven the team to achieve a level of a success that few outside their locker room believed was possible.
This is an oral history of how the devastation and disappointment of Hayward’s injury became a defining mantra of the Celtics’ season-long “Next Man Up” movement.
FALLOUT FROM HAYWARD’S FALL
There was a palatable uneasiness among the Quicken Loans Arena crowd as Hayward’s mangled ankle continued to be attended to by medical staff on hand.
Al Horford, with his hands on the side of his head, looked from a few feet away in disbelief.
Just a few steps to Horford’s right was Brown, hands on his head with a similar pose, trying to do what all in attendance at that moment were doing which is trying to make sense of one of the more gruesome injuries you will see in any sport.
No one knew for sure how bad Hayward’s injury would be, but all understood things were going to be different – very different – going forward.
Danny Ainge (Celtics president of basketball operations): “I just felt sick for Gordon. I know the sacrifices he made to come here to play, the time and work that he puts in to being great. My initial feeling was about him. And my second feeling was about his teammates and how excited they were to play with him. I felt bad for his teammates.”
Brad Stevens (Celtics coach): “Whether you play on the Celtics or play on the Cavs. Nobody wants to see that.”
Kyrie Irving (Celtics guard): “I think all hell broke loose for a little bit. Just like, what are they gonna look like?”
Jaylen Brown (Celtics guard/forward): “We were about to become a different team and to be honest, we didn’t really know what that team was gonna look like or play like.”
Daniel Theis (Celtics center): “He’s such a good player, could do so many things for the team. Him gone that soon, we had to come together really quickly.”
Semi Ojeleye (Celtics forward): “There wasn’t much to say when we huddled together near our bench, other than pray for him.”
Micah Shrewsberry (Celtics assistant, also worked with Hayward at Butler): “Hurt. A lot of hurt because I knew how much he had put into his game since Butler, and to finally get a chance to coach him again and to have that taken away so soon … you feel for him.”
Leading 12-9 at the time of Hayward’s injury, the Celtics’ early control soon disappeared. Cleveland went on a 20-7 run and would spend a good chunk of the first two quarters playing with a double-digit lead before ending the half ahead, 54-38.
Jayson Tatum (Celtics forward): “Everybody was just thinking about Gordon. I had never seen anything like that. Everybody was real quiet. Nobody said too much.”
Shrewsberry: "We need to reassure these guys that we were going to be ok. Switch from being hurt, check on him, making sure he’s okay, to let’s make sure these guys are ok and continue to fight on. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. We have to keep on.”
Brown: "It puts a lot of things in perspective especially when you see it with your own eyes. That could have been you. That was our first thought. Next was, where do we go from here? I said that in the locker room, there are two ways we could have went. We can use this as an excuse and let folks write us off, or we can come out and play some basketball. That’s what we’ve been doing all ear.”
NEXT UP: MILWAUKEE, PHILLY
Still dazed by Hayward’s injury, the Celtics didn’t have much time to mourn his absence. They had rallied to make it a game against Cleveland, but ultimately, the Cavaliers prevailed, 102-99. It was the first game of a back-to-back set to open the season for the C's. They followed that up with their home opener against Milwaukee and, like the Cavs game, Boston managed to be in the game, which included 14 lead changes and nine ties. Again, they came up short in a 108-100 loss to the Bucks, who closed with a 19-11 spurt that sent the Celtics to an 0-2 start with a much-needed day off before returning to play at Philadelphia.
In need of an additional body, the Celtics reached out to Jabari Bird, their second-round pick in the NBA draft who had signed a two-way contract.
He was with family and friends in California when he saw Hayward’s gruesome injury on television. Not too long after seeing that image, Bird got a call from his agent and Ainge telling him to meet the team in Boston.
Bird was being brought in for added depth, or so he thought.
Little did he know that he would be the one to usher in the Celtics’ “next man up” brand of basketball, playing suffocating defense on Sixers guard J.J. Redick in his 13-plus minutes – all coming in the second half - that helped the Celtics get their first win.
Bird: “A couple days earlier, I’m on my couch watching the NBA and now I’m about to get in a game. It was a big shift. To have that experience is great, something I’ll always cherish.”
Brown (a former teammate of Bird at Cal): “A lot of people don’t give him credit for it, but he sparked us a lot to win that game against Philadelphia. He hasn’t had the opportunity since then really, but I know he’s scratching to get back on the floor. I know he’s a good player. He’s gonna be a dog in this league. He just has to be ready for his opportunity when it comes.”
Rozier: “He’ll [Brad Stevens] do that. You don’t even have to play the first half but you need to be ready for the second half. You can sit the whole game...He’s smart and he’s good at what he does. I never question it. I used to a little bit my rookie year when I wasn’t playing. I think everybody does that. But I put my trust in him. He gets it done.
The win over Philadelphia did more than give Boston its first win. It sparked an unprecedented run for a Stevens-coached team. They won 16 in a row to establish themselves as one of the top teams in the NBA.
Brown: “I don’t think we were thinking about it. At that point, there was no pressure on us. Nobody was saying Boston is the number one team. Nobody was saying that they’re gonna be a top-two team, top-five team. Nobody was saying any of this, so we were just out there hooping at that point.”
Shane Larkin (Celtics guard): “Obviously, we have a lot of star power that’s missing just because of the unfortunate circumstances of injuries. But we got a lot of guys who can play here. We have a lot of high draft picks, a lot of first-round picks. Danny [Ainge[ did a great job of putting together a roster for situations like this. You never want to have situations happen with the injuries, but we have a lot of guys in here who can step up and play. That’s what we’ve had to do all season, and we’re going to keep doing it until the wheels fall off.”
Ojeleye: “It was great that we just kept winning, but we kept doing it a little differently. That’s going to help all of us, knowing that anyone of us can step up and have a big game and help us win. It’s tough to stop a team when you don’t know where they are attacking you from, or who you need to key on.”
So here we are, just days away from the start of the playoffs. And the Celtics are far from being at full strength, a reality that they have refused to let get in the way of winning.
That is what makes them both a dangerous foe that, despite what they may lack in star power, they more than compensate with toughness and a commitment to sticking with the game plan, even if they’re not necessarily the center or focal point.
Greg Monroe (Celtics center): “This is why I wanted to come here, and why most of the guys in this locker room want to be a part of; the playoffs. I don’t think this time for granted and neither will my teammates.”
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Larkin: “We have a lot of guys in here who can step up and play. That’s what we’ve had to do all season, and we’re going to keep doing it until the wheels fall off.
Aron Baynes (Celtics center): "This is what it's all about. This is what the season has been about, getting to this point. Now it's time to lock in and focus on the task at hand.”
Al Horford (Celtics forward/center): “I understand there’s a lot of skepticism about our group. We haven’t done it before in the playoffs with the group we have right now. And that’s a great challenge. I’m real excited. We’re all looking forward to it, getting started.”
Marcus Morris (Celtics forward): “This team, we’re resilient. Every guy on this team, we all feel disrespected. Kyrie, Marcus [Smart], [Daniel] Theis, all those guys are major for our team. But they’re not here. We have to still approach the games as if we’ll win and get as far as we can. We have great coaches. That’s been really good for us. We’re ready to go. It’s enough talking.”
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