With Ben Simmons out indefinitely, don’t expect the Sixers to feel too badly for the Celtics suffering an injury. Gordon Hayward will miss approximately four weeks with a Grade III right ankle sprain, the team announced Tuesday.
While Boston losing Hayward may not be enough to swing the series in the Sixers’ favor, it will make a sizeable impact. Hayward averaged 17.5 points a game during the regular season and his presence as a perimeter scorer made for some difficult decisions for Brett Brown defensively.
In Game 1, Brown opted to keep Al Horford in the starting lineup. It didn’t go well. Horford was a minus-18 and had trouble defending Jaylen Brown, who scored 29 points.
“I watched the game slowly, studying Al and obviously others,” Brown said Tuesday. “Jaylen Brown had a great game. I think he is in general a difficult matchup for anybody. And so defensively, I put [Horford] in a situation that does have some punishment when you’re trying to guard such an athlete like Jaylen Brown. We hope as the team we can help Al more in that environment.”
What the Celtics do next could affect Horford in a few different ways. The logical move for Boston would seem to be putting Marcus Smart in the starting lineup. The domino effect for the rest of the Celtics’ rotation could be a little trickier.
If head coach Brad Stevens decides to use rookie Grant Williams — who played two minutes in Game 1 — or Semi Ojeleye to take Hayward’s minutes, that could play to Horford’s advantage. Boston playing “big” with a more traditional four in either Williams or Ojeleye presents Horford with a much easier defensive assignment.
Seeing the advantage of playing small against Horford, Stevens could look to extend Brad Wanamaker’s minutes. The Philly native is the Celtics’ backup point guard. Perhaps Stevens could play Wanamaker more and use Walker more in an off-ball role. Having two players under 6-foot-4 on the court could hurt Boston defensively, but they’d still be putting Horford in a bind.
The Sixers are somewhat in wait-and-see mode. Which direction the Celtics go, both in the starting lineup and to make up for Hayward’s minutes in general, will affect them.
“I think two ways come to my mind first,” Brown said Tuesday. “One, who will inherit that starting position because it may influence what we do as far as how we start the game. I think everyone saw where the lion’s share of the defensive minutes were distributed to [Jayson] Tatum and to Kemba Walker, but that’s the first thing.
“Then secondly, trying to get out in front of projecting, ‘what does that mean?’ You would assume Marcus Smart, as an example, will have far more responsibilities, minutes, those types of things. And so just trying to look out a little bit further on both the starting lineup and what impact, the ripple effect that is going to have on others.”
Both Josh Richardson and rookie Matisse Thybulle were solid defensively Monday. Richardson had better luck with Walker than Tatum, who had a game-high 31 points. It makes sense when you consider the success Richardson had against Walker in the regular season.
Brown admitted before Game 1 that he considered starting Thybulle instead of Horford. Thybulle had a strong postseason debut, holding Tatum to 2 of 9 shooting for four points during his time guarding the first-time All-Star.
But could Thybulle replace Horford in the starting lineup if the Celtics stay small by replacing Hayward with Smart?
“I think at that point, it’s all on the table,” Brown said. “I’m influenced by and large with just trying to match minutes. I thought Matisse did a great job, I thought J-Rich was J-Rich, and we need them to be elite defensively on those two great scorers. So anything’s on the table once we learned this Gordon Hayward news.”
The Sixers missing Simmons, a likely All-Defensive Team pick, clearly hurt them against Boston’s dynamic and smaller lineup. The loss of Hayward could help the Sixers match up better and make Horford a more viable option at the four.