Have you ever had that feeling when you’re fresh out of bed, barely coherent, hair still a mess, and then something you see jolts you to life? That’s what it felt like for us yesterday morning. We had just turned on the TV in the office to watch the Cleveland Cavaliers play the Boston Celtics. Months of breathless anticipation finally culminated in the opening of a new NBA season, and the league couldn’t have picked a better “welcome back” game than Cavs-Celtics. It didn’t matter that we were still disheveled and frantically trying to get up-to-speed with what was happening in the game. All that mattered was the NBA was back. It was glorious.
Then disaster struck.
Five minutes-and-change into the first quarter, Gordon Hayward launched himself into the air off of a backdoor cut, fully intent to spike a vicious alley-oop on the mug of the King. James met him up top, disrupted the play, and sent Hayward crashing to the ground. “Ouch,” we thought to ourselves. “Bad fall. Hope he’s alright.”
Except that he wasn’t.
We first had an inkling that something was wrong when we saw the Cleveland Cavaliers bench react after Hayward landed on his back. “Why are they running away?” Just as we were trying to figure out what was happening, play-by-play guy Kevin Harlan interrupted our thoughts. “Gordon Hayward has broken his leg,” he repeatedly said in a hushed panic.
“Wait, what? A broken leg?”
That’s when the broadcast showed Hayward with his left ankle turned at an angle it shouldn’t be in. Talk about getting slapped out of a morning daze.
Now’s not the time to start thinking about rewriting history, but wouldn’t it have been cool if Hayward managed to complete that alley-oop and dunked all over LeBron James? There he was, the newest Celtic on the block, proudly carrying the Celtic pride tradition, spiking one over the King’s head. That would’ve been the perfect way to ring in the new NBA season, except what happened was the complete opposite. It was the sight of him grimacing in pain as his teammates, the Cavs, everyone in attendance at the game, and just about the whole world stood in absolute stunned silence.
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens told the media after the game that Hayward suffered a dislocated ankle and a fractured tibia. He’s probably back in Boston right now, getting prepped for surgery. There’s no timetable for his return though the safe bet would be that he’d be out for the entire season.
We admit that it doesn’t feel right to talk about Hayward’s injury through the vacuum of basketball ramifications, but there’s no going around it either. Hayward’s injury is a devastating blow to a team that finally pushed all its chips into the center of the table. It signed him to a four-year, $128-million max deal. It pulled off a coup by trading for Irving. It finally had a team that could put an end to LeBron’s seven-year stranglehold on the Eastern Conference. It’s too early to assume that the Celtics can’t recover from this because if the second half of that game was an indication, the team still has the make-up of a contender. It roared back to life after understandably playing in a daze in the first half. Stevens deserves a lion’s share of the credit for recalibrating the players’ focus back to the game itself and it showed. Jaylen Brown was relentless in his attacks to the basket, playing more like a seasoned vet than a second-year neophyte. Rookie Jason Tatum steadied himself and proved his worth as the third overall pick. Al Horford and Marcus Smart fortified the defensive schemes. And Kyrie did Kyrie things, hitting impossible shots and becoming more comfortable moving without the ball to get himself good shots or mismatches.
The Celtics will be fine, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that they can still hit their full stride this season. That scenario came crashing to the ground as soon as Hayward did. As great as Irving is as an offensive maestro, as tenacious as Smart is on defense, as much progress as Brown and Tatum show as the season goes on, there’s no replacing a guy like Gordon Hayward.
He’s supposed to be the straw that stirs this drink, the do-it-all guy that could play the role of playmaker, facilitator, or go-to scorer, often times doing all three in the course of a single game. There’s a reason why Boston signed him to a max deal. He’s a big piece of the puzzle that the team was completing, but now that the piece has been taken off the board at least for this season, there’s no telling when the team is going to get it back, or how the picture is even going to look like when that piece is available again.
Understandably, Hayward’s peers in the NBA and fans from all over the world rushed to offer their prayers to him. That’s usually what happens when something as devastating as this happens to an all-around likeable guy. Amidst the well-wishes and get-well-soons from players and fans alike, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr offered up a succinct point that encapsulated the frailties of being heavily invested in this game. “It just shows the fragile nature of what we do,” Kerr told the media before the Warriors game against the Houston Rockets. “You put yourself in the best position to succeed and win, and you go for it, but so many things can happen...”
We're confident that Gordon Hayward will make a full recovery and he’s going to better than he ever was. He has to. He’s too good of a player to have this be the last chapter written about him. The 2017 NBA season will also roll along, and soon enough, we’ll all be back to cheering for our favorite teams and players.
But there’s no escaping the inescapable. There was nothing redeemable about the opening of the 2017-2018 NBA season after Hayward went down. The climactic ending to the Cavs-Celtics game felt like an afterthought. So did the Golden State Warriors’ ring ceremony. Kevin Durant’s game-winner getting waived off? Nope. They may have mattered in the standings, but from an emotional level, all everybody was thinking about, was the malaise left by Gordon Hayward’s injury. It sucks.
Get well soon, sir. Can’t wait to see you back on the court.