"Oh my goodness, Hayward came down so hard," Kevin Harlan was saying halfway through the first quarter of the TNT broadcast. And then a second later: "Hayward broke his leg. Hayward has broken his leg. Hayward has broken his leg." Then more silence. "Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. And that is how quickly a season can change." Then Reggie Miller: "This is unbelievable. I mean..." For the next 90 seconds, the broadcast team went silent. All you could hear were murmurs from the crowd while the camera panned across stunned fans and players.
"It's hard to describe the feeling in the building," Harlan said near the end of the game.
Watching at home, there was the initial confusion, and then horror that set in watching everyone in the arena recoil at once. And then, obviously, as he grimaced and nodded toward LeBron James and the Cavs while being carried off the floor, everyone felt awful for Hayward.
But the whole time, there was also a kind of disbelief that any of this was really happening. Hayward's injury would've been awful in any game, but five minutes into the first game of the NBA season, it seemed like some kind of alternate timeline nightmare for basketball fans. This was Paul George's Team USA injury, with the entire sport watching, in a game that we'd all planned our week around. The injury was bad enough that announcers could diagnose him seconds afterward from 50 feet away. Various players ran off the Cavs bench. The Celtics played the next hour looking dazed and lifeless.
Brad Stevens told reporters after the game that Hayward had dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia. He flew back to Boston on Tuesday night for more tests, and we should know more by Wednesday afternoon.
In the meantime, once their daze wore off, we did learn a little bit more about how the Celtics might respond without him. That might have been the only encouraging development in Cleveland on opening night. After trailing by 18 points early in the third quarter, Boston came back and took the Cavs right to the end. Jaylen Brown had no answers for LeBron battering him around inside in the final minutes, and Love hit a huge shot for the Cavs to take control of the game in the final minutes. But the Celtics pushed back the entire way.
Kyrie Irving was awesome. He had 22 points on 8 of 17 shooting and 10 assists. His shooting was as dangerous as expected, and he mixed in some gorgeous finishes at the rim. But he also moved well off the ball, he created for teammates, and he never relapsed into iso-mode to junk up the offense the way he'd done at various points with the Cavs.
Meanwhile Brown put up 25 points in 40 minutes, and Jayson Tatum scored all 14 of his points in the second half. The Celtics went small with Al Horford and Aron Baynes as the primary big men, and they spent most of the game playing five-out on offense, opening up massive lanes for Kyrie, Tatum, and anyone else attacking the rim.
Boston has deliberately built a roster full of stretchy, 6'8"-ish athletes that will give Brad Stevens a ton of flexibility to drive teams crazy every night. When Marcus Morris gets healthy in the next few weeks, that'll be one more weapon to deploy. Even without Hayward, this is a blueprint that can work. If not against LeBron James in crunch time, then those small Celitcs lineups could be strangely effective against most everyone else the Celtics will be playing in the East.
There will be a few big challenges. The obvious one will come on defense. Hayward was supposed to be one of the few stabilizing forces on that end, and he's gone now. The good news here is that the Celtics were always going to be shaky on defense given the state of their big men, so going from "mediocre" to "bad" may not cost them much ground against most teams.
The other challenge will be counting on Marcus Smart. He's in a contract year, and he looked fantastic this preseason, but he was 5 of 16 from the floor Tuesday. The Celtics will need him to be better. They won't get 25 points from Jaylen Brown every night, Tatum will be hit-or-miss from night to night, and Marcus Morris can only do so much. Smart and Terry Rozier will be really important to holding together the offense whenever Kyrie Irving sits. That sounds terrifying, but it's not impossible that between the two of them they can make it work.
And Kyrie. He wanted his own team, and now he has it for real. This is a good time to remind you that he never looked like much of a leader early in his career, and he never had the chance as he got older next to LeBron. That second part was painted as a curse this summer, but it was a luxury, too. In Cleveland, there were long stretches of the regular season where it looked like Kyrie was going through the motions, but it never mattered.
None of those habits will fly this year. It's not exactly groundbreaking insight to say that Hayward's absence makes Kyrie twice as important, but what it really does is make him twice as interesting. Everything he was nitpicked for over this summer—the passing, moving off the ball, effort on defense, and especially consistency—are criticisms he'll now have to answer for the Celtics to stay near the top half of the conference.
The reality is that playing hard and being well-coached is generally good enough to get you 45 wins in the East. The Celtics will play smarter than most everyone else, they have a ton of versatile pieces, and they have a superstar who's capable of carrying them in a lot of the same ways Isaiah Thomas did a year ago. They won't challenge for the East with this roster, but this could definitely turn into a young, weird, overachieving team that the city falls in love with anyway. Kyrie will have to execute as the centerpiece to make any of it work, but there's nobody doubting he has the talent to do it.
Obviously, none of that comforts anyone in Boston today. Hayward's injury is the only story that matters. This should've been a career year for him—always bet on the All-Star in the West who moves to the East—and he was about to make himself a household name in a city that would've worshiped him. Now everyone has to press pause on that process. Hayward's season is likely over.
His career shouldn't be, though. After the nightmare opening Tuesday, it was helpful to remember that Paul George has returned as great as he was before. Training staffs are better than ever at helping athletes bounce back, and at 27 years old, Hayward should have as good of a chance as anyone to recover and return to All-Star form.
Tuesday night in Cleveland was a flat-out disaster, but there will be room to salvage things. It won't be easy, but it's not hopeless, either.