After what happened to Gordon Hayward last night, it's easy, and a trifle reductive, to say that: “other players are going to have to step up.” It’s also easy to say that in the NBA dozens, perhaps hundreds of players can do more than their team wants/needs them to (see: Noguiera, Lucas) — and that because of this there are untapped talents waiting for the opportunity an injury provides.
For the Boston Celtics, you can add another well-worn bromide: young players get better by playing.
And that’s the crux of how Hayward’s injury affects the Raptors fiercest division rival — it’s “good” news for now, but might have pushed us closer to the darkest timeline in the long run: one where the Celtics are a young, championship contending machine.
Now, before I let things get out of hand, of course Jaylen Brown (25pts on 48% shooting, six boards, and two steals), and Jayson Tatum (first Celt since Bird to open his career with a double-double) are not going to be as good as they were opening night all season long. Another long-held maxim is that rookies generally don’t help their teams win. Brown, while not a rookie, is still a 20-year old with less than 1,400 minutes played in his career.
But, what you saw from Tatum and Brown Tuesday night was undeniably impressive. Two young players who didn’t shrink from their suddenly, massively upgraded roles, who were aggressive, and who, damnit, made it pretty clear what Danny Ainge sees in that funhouse shaped mirror he wakes up to every morning where a conference champion has numerous top-3 picks to play with.
Last night against the Cavs, we watched Brown as he attacked Kevin Love’s handle like a leopard stalking a wounded gazelle, and then finish the break with a dunk that showcased his rare athleticism.
And Tatum was even more impressive/depressing for Raps fans. At one point, the Duke product grabbed the rebound in traffic, started the break, and then after getting the ball back made a nice lay-up over Love.
It’s not just that play itself that gives you pause, it’s the fact that he did it all, without hesitating, in his first NBA game.
Those are, to borrow a cliché, winning plays. The fact Brown and Tatum busted them out so naturally when by all rights the Celtics should have been in the midst of chaos, is telling.
Obviously losing an All-Star is never a positive development, but if there was a time to lose one this would be the platonic ideal.
Early in the season so the team has plenty of time to adapt? Check.
Uber-talented, confident, young players ready to step in? Check.
Veteran players to make sure the kids keep focus/prop them up on tough nights? Mostly Check (this depends a bit on your tolerance for the twin theories of: ‘Marcus Smart can mature’ and ‘Aron Baynes is a legit NBA vet.’)
A conference so weak that losing an extra handful of games means almost nothing? Check.
A tiny sliver of hope that the injury happened early enough that said All-Star could still come back? Check.
The Celtics are going to get a “free” season to stretch Tatum and Brown to their limits. Yes, they were both starters, but to think coach Brad Stevens was planning to see them become perhaps the second and third options this year is a big leap. Now Stevens, one of the top five minds in the game, gets a whole season to experiment. Tatum as secondary ball-handler in the pick and roll? Why not. Brown in the post, where his size and athleticism could give the Celtic's a perfect way of inverting the floor? Let’s feed it and see. Now sure, these experiments are probably going to cost Boston some games, but it also comes in a near consequence-free environment (no small matter in a town like Boston with it’s aggressive and parochial media).
If Brown and Tatum shine? Well, everything is better. The record. The perception of the team. The player’s trade value (is that Anthony Davis’ music I hear?). If they don’t, it’s not that big a deal — the rooks were forced to do more than they could. They’re still learning on the job. They showed flashes of what they’ll be when they’re, you know, LEGALLY OLD ENOUGH TO DRINK!
If you were a Raps fan this year, your hope was that the Celtic's depth was going to let them down. That Brown, Tatum, Terry Rozier, and the rest of the Leprechaun kiddie corps were going to be inconsistent, forcing Stevens to constantly tinker. The Boston media was going to start second-guessing the Tatum-Fultz deal, and maybe even the Irving trade. The hope was that Brown and Tatum might spin their wheels for seasons while the Celtics figured out exactly what they are.
Now, Stevens can just roll the ball out and play. Barring an absolute disaster, Boston is making the playoffs, still very possibly with home-court advantage. Sure, the Raps chances of winning the Atlantic have improved, and likely their chances of beating Boston in the playoffs if the two met — but LBJ still looms, and being real for a second means that everyone in the East is still thinking of this season in “puncher’s chance” terms.
If Hayward was to play all season, Brown and Tatum would have still got their opportunities to feature. The Celtics are too young, and Stevens too smart, to not find a way to meaningfully develop a pair of players who Boston fans can dream on as linchpins of a future title winner. Now, with Hayward gone, that process is going to accelerate, and last night’s showing should give Raptors fans an uncomfortable squirmy feeling in their belly.