Just eight games into what was looking like a bounce-back season, Gordon Hayward is now back on the sidelines. The Celtics forward broke his left hand in the second quarter of Saturday’s win against the Spurs while fighting through a screen set by LaMarcus Aldridge.
Here is the play during which Hayward fractured his hand, while being screened by LaMarcus Aldridge. pic.twitter.com/X0mXYlyh5k— Marc D'Amico (@Marc_DAmico) November 9, 2019
ESPN reported that Hayward will visit a specialist Sunday to figure out if the injury to his non-shooting hand will require surgery. No timeline was given by the Celtics for Hayward’s return, but Steph Curry is expected to miss three months after undergoing surgery to repair a break in his left hand. This setback for Hayward, however, feels particularly cruel. The 29-year-old missed all but a few minutes of the 2017-18 season with a broken ankle, and didn’t look like himself throughout a disappointing 2018-19 season. But this season, Hayward looked like an All-Star again.
Hayward is averaging 20.3 points and 4.6 assists—his second best in both categories to date—and 7.9 rebounds, a career high. He is also shooting 44.4 percent from 3 and 56.4 percent from the field—which equates to a 62.4 effective field goal percentage, the best in his career. Just two games ago, he totaled 39 points against the Cavs—you guessed it, a new career high. Eight games is a small sample size, but Hayward was proving that last season was an aberration rather than the norm. This was the Hayward who Boston signed to a max contract in July 2017.
Hayward’s improved play also became something of a stabilizing force for a Celtics roster in flux. Gone are Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, Boston’s linchpins on offense and defense last season. Kemba Walker, a max contract signing this offseason, has stepped into Irving’s shoes quite well, with averages of 24.3 points and 41.3 percent shooting from 3. And Jayson Tatum is starting to pick up where he left off as a rookie (21.6 points per game). But Hayward was the key to making it all work. It’s no coincidence that the Celtics’ offense no longer looks like it’s stuck in the mud now that Hayward is handling the ball more. His renewed confidence and improved shooting also opened up space for Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and others to create easier looks.
Coming into the season, the Celtics looked like a move away from being on the same level as the Sixers and Bucks. But they haven’t lost since a season-opening loss to Philly, and they now sit atop the Eastern Conference at 7-1. To keep from dropping off in Hayward’s absence, Boston will have to ask more from its young reserves in its already depleted frontcourt.
Starting center Enes Kanter has played only one game because of a knee bruise. In the meantime, the Celtics have leaned on 6-foot-3 Marcus Smart, rookie Grant Williams, and Robert Williams. One bright spot from Saturday’s win was that Time Lord played 22 minutes and finished with 11 points, seven rebounds, and six blocks.
Robert Williams blocks a 3 and runs the fast break to get the hockey assist pic.twitter.com/xG2N77Tsx4— The Render (@TheRenderNBA) November 10, 2019
But Hayward’s ability to crash the boards and guard beefier wings like R.J. Barrett and Tobias Harris has been essential to Boston’s fourth-ranked defense. The Celtics looked like a prime candidate to swing a midseason trade for some frontcourt help before the season began, and you have to wonder if Hayward’s injury only increases the likelihood that Boston, armed with the Grizzlies’ protected first-round pick, goes after the likes of Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, and Danilo Gallinari. Or maybe Myles Turner, if the Pacers’ big-man rotation proves too crowded upon his return from injury.
If Hayward avoids surgery and comes back in weeks instead of months, this may be just a blip in an otherwise exciting comeback season for both the Celtics and him. But for now, it’s hard to view this as anything but yet another setback in a star-crossed run in Boston.