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With Hayward Out, Celtics Will Lean On Others To Step Up

Marc D'Amico
Team Reporter and Analyst

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BOSTON – The Boston Celtics are no strangers to injuries. They’ve dealt with them all season, and now they’ll deal with another for approximately one month while Gordon Hayward recovers from a sprained right ankle.

Hayward suffered the injury with 3:08 remaining in Boston’s Game 1 victory over the 76ers Monday night. The initial timetable of approximately four weeks means that the Celtics would likely need to advance to the Conference Finals without him.

“Really tough for him. Obviously tough for us,” Brad Stevens said following Tuesday’s practice. “He’s had a heck of a season and played well here … I feel for him, more than anything else, and it’s our job to make up for all of the great things that he does by committee, and we’ll attempt to do so.”

The Celtics have had three stretches of games this season during which they’ve been forced to fill Hayward’s absence by committee. Hayward missed 13 games from Nov. 11 through Dec. 6 with a fractured left hand, four games from Dec. 18 through Dec. 22 and again on Feb. 7 with a sore left foot, and two games from March 4 through March 6 with a right knee contusion.

The encouraging news for Boston is that it went 14-5 during those 19 games.

Hayward’s three stretches of injuries this season weren’t the only ones Boston was forced to play through, either. Five of the team’s top eight players in terms of minutes per game this season missed at least 11 contests. Daniel Theis and Jayson Tatum, two starters who were not a part of that group, also missed six and five games, respectively.

Somehow, the Celtics navigated their way through all of those injuries and completed the season with a 48-24 record, good for the NBA’s fifth-best win percentage. They were able to be successful in the face of injury adversity thanks in large part to their depth.

Boston possess one luxury that very few teams in the NBA have. That is that it can call on Marcus Smart, who is one of the league’s premier defenders and unquestionably a starter-level player, to step into the starting lineup anytime someone goes down. Due to the long list of injuries the team suffered this season, Smart actually started more games (40) than he played as a reserve (20). Boston went 26-14 during Smart’s 40 starts.

The Celtics will almost certainly call his name yet again for the next month as they attempt to advance far enough for Hayward to return to the lineup.

Smart, who serves as Boston’s Swiss Army Knife at the defensive end, said Tuesday that starting alongside offensive stars Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker will allow him to be even more of a pest at his preferred end of the floor.

“Starting doesn’t require me to really be more of an offensive threat,” he said. “So I can spend my energy on the defensive end, whereas coming off the bench I’ll be a little more assertive on the offensive end as well.”

There are certainly other players on Boston’s roster who will need to step up during Hayward’s absence. After all, Hayward averaged 33.5 minutes per game during the regular season and was on pace to play more than 37 minutes during Game 1 prior to rolling his ankle. That’s a lot of minutes to fill.

The most likely candidates to earn more playing time are reserves Brad Wanamaker, Romeo Langford, Semi Ojeleye, Grant Williams and Rob Williams. All five of those players have shown flashes of brilliant play inside the NBA bubble, and all five will likely be called upon to provide the team with quality minutes moving forward.

This is nothing new for these players, nor is it anything new for the Celtics as a whole. They overcame injury absences throughout the regular season. Now they need to do it again when it matters most – during the NBA Playoffs.