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The immediate and obvious reaction to the news Boston Celtics swingman Gordon Hayward has been diagnosed with a left-hand fracture is to feel for a player that spent the past 25 months working his way back from a gruesome ankle injury and was seemingly on a path to re-establishing himself as an All-Star-caliber player.
Hayward, operating with restored confidence, aggression, and consistency, had been nothing short of spectacular to start the year. Entering Saturday’s game against the Spurs, Hayward was averaging 20.3 points per game while shooting 56.4 percent from the floor and 44.4 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. He added 7.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists over 33.5 minutes per game, essentially producing at a level similar to his lone All-Star season with the Utah Jazz.
Hayward injured his hand when he ran blindly into a LaMarcus Aldridge screen in the second quarter of Saturday’s game in San Antonio. Hayward’s left hand hit on Aldridge’s right side and Hayward immediately clutched at his fingers in pain. Hayward looked to be gesturing at his middle or ring finger as he walked off the court with a trainer.
ESPN reported that Hayward will see a hand specialist on Monday with the potential for immediate surgery and a firmer timeline should emerge after that visit.
For the Celtics, this is the first real bump in the road in a season defined by good vibes. The Celtics have rattled off seven straight now and, before the Hayward injury, looked like a team capable of scrapping with the elite of the East. An aggressive Hayward raised Boston’s ceiling, particularly when his progress was paired with the advances made by fellow wings Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
The Celtics are no stranger to being shorthanded this season — Brown missed three games due to illness and Enes Kanter has been sidelined since the season-opener due to a knee bruise — but Boston will need everybody on the roster to elevate their play to make up for all the way he’s impacted games this season.
When Brown missed time, coach Brad Stevens elevated Marcus Smart to the starting role alongside Kemba Walker in the frontcourt. That would seem like a strong possibility again. It takes some size away from Boston’s first unit but Smart’s defensive versatility — especially his ability to defend 4s — could help patch the Hayward void.
Tatum and Brown will be tasked with shouldering an even bigger load and early returns suggest they’ll embrace the opportunity. After returning on Thursday in Charlotte, Brown noted how he wants to show everybody the strides he made this offseason. He promptly produced a 30-point night in a lopsided win in San Antonio.
The bigger question is which of Boston’s role players will elevate their performance with a greater opportunity? Boston’s collection of backup wings -- from rookie Javonte Green to Grant Williams to Semi Ojeleye — are going to get chances to fill minutes created by Hayward’s void. Green has already grabbed minutes and turned heads with his athleticism. Ojeleye has played more sparingly in recent games but will be needed. Stevens prefers to use Williams as a small-ball big but might need him to play more wing minutes.
Depending on the length of Hayward’s absence, there could be an opportunity here for rookie Romeo Langford as well. Langford spent Saturday night with the Maine Red Claws of the G-League and has played just 14 seconds for the parent club this season after missing time at the start of his pro career due to a collection of maladies. Langford, the No. 14 overall pick in June’s draft, has obvious offensive potential but hasn’t been healthy enough to earn NBA minutes yet.
Rookie Carsen Edwards could see an uptick in time from Hayward’s injury as well. It’s on the young players to capitalize on their chances when they come.
Remember that the hallmark of Stevens’ teams, outside of last season, has been an ability to respond to adversity. When Hayward and Kyrie Irving were lost to injury during the 2017-18 season, Tatum and Brown spearheaded a run to the cusp of the NBA Finals.
It’s time to find out exactly how the 2019-20 version responds to adversity.
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