Gordon Hayward's absence will tell us how these Celtics handle adversity

Gordon Hayward's absence will tell us how these Celtics handle adversity

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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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Jaylen Brown shares how Kevin Garnett motivated 2017 Celtics with colorful voice memos

Jaylen Brown shares how Kevin Garnett motivated 2017 Celtics with colorful voice memos

Kevin Garnett's impact on the Boston Celtics didn't stop when he was traded to the Brooklyn Nets just over seven years ago.

The ex-Celtics big man also is one of the NBA's greatest motivators who continued to check up on his former team after leaving Boston.

Jaylen Brown certainly can attest to that. During an interview with ESPN's Ros Gold-Onwude, Brown explained how KG would send voice memos to the team during the season, often with strongly-worded (and NSFW) messages. 

One of those messages came during Brown's rookie season in 2016-17, when Garnett chewed out the young wing for displaying poor body language.

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"I was at the end of the bench with my head down," Brown said, "and he sent a voice message through my strength coach over the phone like, 'You better pick your mother------- head up!'

"He was cursing me out. He was like, 'You've got to carry yourself a certain way.' So, he told me to pick my head up and fix my body language, right the f--- now."

Brown took KG's colorful message to heart and has blossomed into a confident two-way star for Boston in his fourth season.

The 23-year-old also recalled the poignant voice memo Garnett sent the Celtics during their 2017 first-round playoff matchup with the Bulls. Boston trailed 2-0 to No. 8 seed Chicago and was reeling from the tragic death of Isaiah Thomas' sister, Chyna.

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"He spoke so much life into our team," Brown said. " ... It was probably the most OG message you will ever hear in your entire life. It was dope.

"I remember him saying, 'There's two ways you can go. Either you can go backward or go forward. I feel everybody's emotions. Channel it out there and hit them in the mouth.' "

The Celtics did just that, winning four straight games to win the series and rallying behind Thomas to reach the Eastern Conference Finals.

So, when Garnett's number gets raised to the TD Garden rafters in the near future, remember that his legacy with the Celtics goes far beyond his on-court performance.

Good news for Celtics: Kemba Walker 'ready to go' after 'needed' break

Good news for Celtics: Kemba Walker 'ready to go' after 'needed' break

Boston Celtics All-Star point guard Kemba Walker admitted he “wasn’t really happy” with the way he was playing before the 2019-20 NBA season paused due to the coronavirus pandemic, but said after a “needed” break that allowed him to rest a bothersome knee, he’s eager to get back on the court with his teammates for the Orlando restart.

Walker declared himself, “ready to go,” after using the downtime to heal a knee that hindered him over the final six weeks of play.

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“[The break was] super important for me. I really, really needed to get that break,” said Walker. "It definitely helped me get back to myself and start to feel comfortable on my knee. It was a very unfortunate time but it was in my best interests for sure. So I’m pretty comfortable with the way the schedule is and I’m just going to keep on taking care of myself. That’s really all I can do, so I’m just going to stay on top of things and take it day by day.”

Walker earned his All-Star nod by averaging 22 points per game while shooting 38.8 percent beyond the 3-point arc through the end of January. A sore knee first forced him to sit out on January 18 but sidelined him for two longer stretches — and nine total games — in February. Walker averaged just 16.8 points while shooting 31.7 percent overall and 31.3 percent beyond the 3-point arc in his final eight games before the season paused.

Some of Walker’s struggles were masked by Jayson Tatum’s ascension. But the Celtics know they need a healthy Walker to reach their loftiest goals in Orlando.

"I’m definitely ready to try and expand my game to higher levels so we can just be a better team,” said Walker. "Especially the way I ended the season, I wasn’t really happy with the way I was playing. So I’m excited.”

Walker admitted he’s still trying to get back into game shape. But the downtime allowed him to really examine how he can best help the Celtics.

“I’m a lot more comfortable, especially realizing the change and everything that went down during the season, the ups and downs,” said Walker. "I’m definitely more comfortable with my teammates. We’ve been talking all quarantine. I got a chance to watch a lot of games over the quarantine, so, yeah, I think I’m more comfortable. I’m ready to go.

"We're pretty excited. I know everyone is just excited to see each other. From Day 1, honestly, with this team, our vibe and our chemistry was already there for a very long time. That first day anybody had seen anyone, it was like we were with each other yesterday, you know? It's that kind of team we have. We're just so close and we're just looking forward to going out there and just handling our business.”

Walker said he’s not particularly concerned about the recent COVID spike in Florida and believes the NBA will do everything to ensure player safety. As for worries about being stuck inside the bubble for a particularly lengthy stretch if the Celtics embark on a long playoff run, Walker dismissed that while noting, “All I do is stay in the house anyways, so there's nothing wrong with me staying in a [hotel] room.”

Added Walker: "I'm actually looking forward to it just because I'm ready to play basketball.”