Boston Against The World: How The Celtics Can Save Their Season

Dan O'Shea

Boston Celtics fans did not expect to head into the second game of the regular season like this. They expected to be celebrating an opening night win while toasting their brand-new roster to some Boston Lagers while “Dirty Water” blared in the background. Instead, it’s been Sarah McGloughlin’s “I Will Remember You” from those gut-wrenching animal cruelty videos echoing across Massachusets as fans deal with the team’s first loss like Jimmy Fallon dealt with his breakup in “Fever Pitch.”

Nothing but old highlights of the Showtime Lakers taking down Larry Bird’s past Celtics teams or LeBron James going insane in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals to kill Boston’s big three once and for all. It’s the only way to deal with the pain after Gordon Hayward went down in one of the most brutal injuries you’ll ever see.

The championship dream may seem even more out of reach than ever before, but between a superhero season from Kyrie Irving, the emergence of key role players, and the early rise of Boston’s future, this campaign may not be dead just yet.

For those who were lucky enough to be doing anything other than watching the first quarter of the Celtics matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers, you just happened to miss Celtics superstar small forward Gordon Hayward suffer a fractured left ankle after going up for a lob pass less than six minutes into his debut with his new team.

Rather than ruin whatever plan you had for lunch or dinner by showing you an injury, just look at Cleveland’s bench. It’s the exact reaction the rest of the nation had to the injury.

With one of Boston’s two superstar pillars laying on the ground screaming as his ankle looked like a piece of cooked spaghetti, you couldn’t help but think the season was over. Anytime an All-Star goes down with an injury like that you have to think about moving your jerseys into storage for the next year, and picking up a new hobby.

Perhaps hiking or painting is more your speed rather than watching Boston get their ass handed to them for the rest of the season. As you mapped out trails of the Adirondack Mountains or hit Pinterest to find the best place to find watercolor paints at an affordable price, Boston’s team gave you something you didn’t think you’d have with 6:49 left in the first quarter: hope.

With the team down as much as 18 with more than the wind knocked out of them at that point after the Gordon Hayward injury, they still managed to claw their way back to give themselves a chance to send the game to overtime in the final seconds.

While dealing with the Hayward news and coming all the way back just to fall short is comparable to putting a beautiful bouquet of carnations on an already well-packed grave, this comeback should not be considered a fluke. Boston was able to compete and stay in the game, just like they’ll be able to grind and get towards the top of the Eastern Conference this season.

The sample size may be small, but it already answered a slew of questions that came to attention with one less superstar in the lineup. Who would step up, and how would the young potential stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum deal with the added pressure? Well, all you really need to do is watch these videos of Brown and Tatum treating the rim like it owes them money to come across your answer.

The strange part about the makeup of Boston’s roster isn’t just the fact that there are only four players returning from last year’s team, with the 20-year-old Brown being one of them. It’s the fact that this roster was designed to take two different paths, one to compete now, and one to build for the future.

The gap between those two roads decreased in size when Boston got younger while getting better by adding Kyrie Irving and Hayward, but the Celtics’ future was still focused on the development of Brown, Tatum, and the future draft pick that was acquired in the recent trade with Philadelphia in exchange for the rights to draft Markelle Fultz.

Last night, Tatum and Brown proved that this team won’t have to rely on Hayward to take that first path towards championship by completely overlapping these two roads for the first time.

Brown’s performance showed he’s not going to be that same project the Celtics saw last year. It won’t be a few flashes of brilliance that make everyone one say “he’s going to be good one day.” That day is now. From his career-high 25 points to his brilliance on defense with three steals as he covered a number of different positions, Brown can be the guy.

He may have struggled from three, shooting 2 for 9 including a missed pull-up that would’ve sent the game into overtime, but he still shows the confidence to take that shot. As for inside the arc, he completely dominated, From bullying Derrick Rose in the post to taking defenders off the bounce on an iso and destroying the hoop, he’s too athletic to stop as long as he continues to finish around the rim.

As for Tatum, there isn’t much to be said about his opening night in the NBA. All he did was match Larry Bird as one of the only Celtics to ever record a double-double in his first career game.

Anytime you earn a comparison to Larry Bird, Celtics fans go from six to midnight in a matter of seconds.

It’s going to be tough to make up for the 20+ point per game that Hayward was slated to put up, but with Tatum’s incredibly polished game for a rookie and Brown’s explosiveness, it’s easy to think these two can clearly fill that void. Brown will have to work on his outside shooting and Tatum will hopefully have more consistent outings in the future after he was thrown into a tough situation for his first ever game, but the blueprint is clearly there.

It’s not like these two will have to be the only ones that have to step up and contribute. It’s hard to find veterans who know Brad Stevens and the way around this Boston organization, but two of the Celtics outside of Jaylen Brown returning this season now have a large helping of pressure on their plates.

Horford was one man that was expected to be the third banana behind Irving and Hayward. He still will likely be the third option on offense no matter who is on the court, but will also have more responsibilities and added pressure to step up. It’s confusing, but so is understanding Horford’s role with the team.

The age of the old big man is dead, but Horford still somehow manages to be completely different than the rest of the league. He’s expected to guard oversized small forwards and even stars on switches like he did on the final possession against LeBron James.

He’ll have to stretch the court and hit from beyond the arc, become the second facilitator on the court at all times and still rebound like the big that he is. Horford may also have to update the team’s Twitter account, schedule their flights to and from away games, and prepare the team lunch before games. If you name it, Horford is expected to step up and do it.

What he won’t have to do is step up and become a leader. He’s already considered a leader for this team. One man who will join him and become a vocal leader on and off the court is Marcus Smart.

Just like Horford, Smart is not a guy who will let a position define how he plays the game. He can be seen jacking up threes and driving people crazy, and then will dive on the floor for a loose ball, make the extra pass, and will make an impressive stop on defense all within a matter of seconds.

He’s a human roller coaster that will drive Boston crazy, but he will certainly drive this team. Smart will be the engine behind the second unit, exploiting matchups and constantly trying to play hero ball all while simultaneously fueling this team forward, just like he did last night.

Horford and Smart may do everything extra to get this team going, but everyone knows the catalyst of success will be Kyrie Irving. The man wanted to be the focal point of his own team, and now has his wish. He certainly didn’t get it in the way he wanted, but he will now be expected to step up and fill the shoes that he laid out in front of himself.

Will he have to be the entire offense like he was in Cleveland before LeBron returned to give his career new life? No, but he will be able to handle it in this post-LeBron era. Irving is expected to put up points in a hurry like he did in Cleveland last year, but will also have to embrace the role of facilitator. Even without Hayward, there are plenty of players around him who are completely capable of scoring when given the right look. All the pressure is on Kyrie, whether he has the ball or not.

From finding open cutters like Smart, Tatum, and Brown all night to catching and shooting big threes, he is the nucleus of the offense. Those nights where he could go back to being the second option as Hayward cooks are gone. Even on nights where his shot isn’t there, he’ll be expected to create for this offense in one way or another, just like Isaiah Thomas did for Boston last year. Plus, all eyes will be on the man that constantly has attention thrust upon him even when he shouldn’t be the point of focus.

Having story after story based on you and the things you say often can be depicted as a tale of a villain, but Irving will have to be the exact opposite for Boston. As a city that loves heroes, the narrative is set up right in front of him: a team already fighting to push past expectations that were immediately lowered, overcoming obstacles since the first six minutes of your first game as a Celtic, as your former teammate LeBron James tries to waltz to his eighth-straight NBA Finals appearance. All the spotlight he could’ve ever wanted on this new career path is on him.

It’s hard to find the sliver of positivity in this situation, but it did happen in the first game. Now, these Boston players have 81 games, essentially the entire regular season, to step up and be the team to take down LeBron James and the Cavs.

That’s plenty of times for young potential to turn into production, for role players to turn into focal points in the team’s success, and for one superstar to create his legacy.

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