The Celtics, champions 17 times over, have known unprecedented success during their existence. Maybe it helps a little to remember that right now, to remember so many rewarding days have belonged to them. Maybe it does not. I don’t know.
The Celtics have known unspeakable sadness. Len Bias died after just a formal moment as a Celtic. Reggie Lewis died just as he was beginning to reveal himself as a superb Celtic in all the satisfying ways. Maybe it helps to remember all of that right now, all of the ebbs and flows, the transcendent highs and the devastating lows, too. Maybe it does not. I don’t know.
All I know right now, in the immediate wake of Gordon Hayward’s gruesome ankle injury 5 minutes, 15 seconds into his Celtics career, is that any grasping search for perspective is going to be clumsy and unfulfilling. This, to borrow from Rick Pitino’s particular lexicon, stinks and sucks.
Foremost, of course, you feel for Hayward.
In July, he made the bold (and lucrative) decision to leave Utah, the only NBA home he had known, to sign with the Celtics and reunite with his college coach, Brad Stevens. Six weeks later, the Celtics formalized a trade for fellow All-Star Kyrie Irving. Hayward found himself on a true contender for the conference championship, in a city that appreciates basketball at its highest level, playing for the coach who recruited him to Butler — a coach who helped him develop into a first-round pick and surely would get the best out of him now.
Boston was going to be Hayward’s basketball nirvana, the beginning of his professional pinnacle. And before the first quarter of his first game in green and white was complete, he collided with LeBron James, landed awkwardly, found himself with a left foot hideously pointing west, and suddenly was drawing ghastly comparisons with Paul George and Joe Theismann.
You feel sorry for yourselves as fans, too. You bet that’s allowed. When Hayward hit the court and writhed, the blood drained from your face when you heard Kevin Harlan’s disbelieving words: “Gordon Hayward has broken his leg.’’
It’s a strange thing, to feel it physically when something devastating happens within the context of sports. But it does. Seeing Hayward’s face, then seeing his ankle, felt like taking a size-16 Nike to the gut.
The only other time I can recall feeling this way was when Bernard Pollard’s helmet intersected with Tom Brady’s knee nine years ago. Something is lost before it really begins, you know? The anticipation for this season was as high as it has been since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined forces with Paul Pierce a decade ago. This was supposed to be the culmination of Danny Ainge’s expert rebuild from the New Big Three era to this.
Uniting Hayward and Irving with Al Horford and the youngsters of the cast was the payoff for Ainge’s patient play, the hoarding of assets, the draft-pick heist from the Nets, the acquisitions of Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder for next to nothing, all of it done without ever sinking to the depths of the standings.
The Celtics were to be a true contender now, a real rival to LeBron and the Cavs, who dispatched them without much drama in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals. Instead, on the night of the renewal of the new-look rivalry, we got the bizarre sight of a sympathetic James, consoling Hayward as he was carted off the floor.
It’s impossible to do now, in the aftermath of such a staggering and cruel plot twist, but in the next days and months we’ll recalibrate expectations. Without Hayward, an exceptional and yet efficient all-around offensive player, it’s a misguided daydream to believe they can be contenders for a conference title, unless his injury is the beginning of a league-wide epidemic of shattered ankles.
But it must be acknowledged with a full reservoir of respect that the Celtics’ performance Tuesday night was beyond admirable, if ultimately unfulfilling. They looked devastated in their huddle after the Hayward injury. Of course they did. There appeared to be tears. There surely were prayers. Their performance after the injury reflected their shaken and distracted mood. They trailed by 10 after the first quarter and 16 at the half.
But somehow, in the second half, they came out scorching, outscoring the Cavs, 33-18, in the third quarter. The Celtics even led by 3 points with 1:50 left.
But LeBron activated his superpowers, the Cavs closed on a 7-1 run, and an Irving 3 at the buzzer that would have tied the game fell short. The Cavs won, 102-99.
Maybe their resiliency in the wake of Hayward’s injury is a clue to the makeup of this team. Maybe there are more rewarding moments ahead than we can anticipate now. Maybe Jayson Tatum will be a star right away. But even the attempts at optimism lead to one more cruel reality:
No matter how well the Celtics do this season, how well they represent themselves in the final 81 games and how this all plays out, we’ll always wonder how much better the season would be if Gordon Hayward hadn’t busted his ankle at the starting line.