The Boston Celtics’ run of full health lasted a shade under 45 minutes before Gordon Hayward sustained a right ankle sprain in the fourth quarter of Friday’s Game 1 against the Philadelphia 76ers after landing awkwardly on the foot of teammate Daniel Theis.
Boston entered its playoff opener with all 17 of its players available and no one on a minute restriction, something that pretty much hadn’t happened since opening night against the Sixers in October.
Now, the Celtics must brace themselves for playing without Hayward until the Eastern Conference Finals.
Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston’s coverage of Celtics-76ers Game 2, which begins Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.
The team announced Tuesday that Hayward is expected out four weeks after being diagnosed with a Grade III sprain. Hayward is also expected to depart the bubble some time in September when his wife, Robyn, delivers the family’s fourth child, something that will subject him to a four-day quarantine upon return.
Losing Hayward strips part of what makes Boston so unique. Few teams have a former All-Star as a fourth option. Fewer have a Swiss Army knife of a contributor who dutifully does whatever he can to accentuate the talent around him, all while critics lament the size of his contract compared to his scoring output.
Go through the tape of Game 1 and Hayward’s impact goes beyond his modest base stat line of 12 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists. Boston loses a steady ball-handler who often quarterbacked the second unit and created open shots for teammates.
Boston loses one of its long-armed wing defenders who can disrupt entry passes, scramble over with help to fluster Joel Embiid, and parlay turnovers into easy scoring chances.
Boston loses its fastest regular on the floor, a player who touches the ball as much as Kemba Walker, and who rebounds at a better rate than some of the team’s bigs.
The Celtics have the luxury of being able to fill many of Hayward’s minutes with Marcus Smart. But Stevens has often tried to keep Smart in a reserve role, his presence steadying that second group and providing a jolt of energy as starters come off the floor.
Stevens must decide if it’s best to elevate Smart and maybe alter his substitution pattern with the goal of keeping another starter on the floor in spots where Hayward would have played, of if he could plug a lesser-used player into that starting role and limit that player’s burden while running with the team’s three best scorers.
This might be an easier decision if rookie Romeo Langford hadn’t torn ligaments in his right hand in the team’s seeding-game finale.
Langford looked in line for spot minutes in the postseason but will have to play through the discomfort of an injury that should eventually require surgery. Langford has actually been through this before, playing much of his lone season at Indiana University with a thumb injury on his shooting hand. But it certainly adds a layer of complication to filling Hayward’s minutes with a traditional wing.
Stevens can deploy rookie Grant Williams or veteran Semi Ojeleye at the 4, or see how rookie Javonte Green responds as a more traditional wing. Maybe that’s sustainable in short bursts, but it also puts a lot of pressure on core starters like Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown to play bigger minutes, all with games scheduled every other day. It also means those core guys will see a lot more attention when they are on the floor, as defenses will challenge Smart to beat them.
The absence of Hayward hinders Boston but should not prevent them from advancing past the Sixers. Things get dicier in the Eastern Conference semifinals with a potential matchup looming against the Raptors. The absence of Hayward feels big enough to potentially tip the balance of that series given how even those teams tended to be in regular-season play.
In the bigger picture, it’s a gut punch for Hayward, who has been ravaged by injuries throughout his Boston tenure.
Beyond the ankle injury in his Boston debut, Hayward missed extended time earlier this season after breaking his hand in a freak collision in San Antonio. He has missed 101 out of a possible 236 regular-season games over the past three seasons.
Hayward can opt into the final year of his Boston deal after this season, one that will pay him the final $34 million of his $128 million deal.
The green-tinged positive spin: If the Celtics know one thing, it’s playing through absences. Next man up has been a way of life for Stevens’ teams. Now they’ll have to do it again on the playoff stage with hopes they can stay alive long enough for Hayward to get back on the floor.