Five minutes. The new-look Boston Celtics' lineup lasted all of five minutes before prized free agent acquisition Gordon Hayward leapt for a pass and came down horribly wrong on his left leg. The arena fell into a troubled silence as Hayward was attended to and stretchered off—and once the season opener resumed, it was a different game. The Cleveland Cavaliers held on to win despite a brilliant 22-point, 10-assist Celtics debut from Kyrie Irving, but the result was overshadowed by Hayward’s injury—initially reported as a dislocated ankle and fractured tibia—that could potentially see him miss the remainder of the season.
The remainder of the season, of course, is 81 games. The Celtics, despite a near-complete turnover of their roster, were predicted to be contenders in the East once again, having swapped the solo brilliance of Isaiah Thomas for a more balanced team built around an All-Star backcourt of Hayward and Irving. Now, with 26 NBA teams yet to even play their openers, that balance is gone. In order for the Celtics to contend, Irving will have to take on more of the load.
What happened to Hayward is a tragedy, yet the season continues. The "sports as war" metaphors are all tired and overused, but in a sense, it does apply here—despite the fallen, the fight goes on. And, for Irving at least, this seems to be a case of be careful what you wish for. He asked out of Cleveland, in part, because he was apparently tired of being overshadowed by LeBron James. Seeking a team of his own, he wound up being a key piece of one in Boston—and now, with their other big-time acquisition sidelined, Irving is the undisputed centerpiece.
The exciting part, and yes, there is an exciting part, is we still don’t know exactly what to expect from Irving. Not after one game. He proved himself to be a tremendous one-on-one player even alongside James, but outside of a few games here and there, he hasn’t had the reins of a team fully in his hands since he was 22. Since then, he’s played in three NBA Finals and hit the biggest shot in Cavaliers history. Still just 25, he has his whole future ahead of him.
And with 81 games remaining, Irving can dictate the direction in which said future goes. He’ll be an All-Star again this season, no question (oh, the East), the question is just how he’ll get there. Will he be a ball stopper or a distributor? On Tuesday night, he stayed within the team concept, as second-year forward Jaylen Brown scored a team-high 25 points and rookie Jayson Tatum added 14, all in the second half. Marcus Smart, filling in for Hayward, scored 12 in 35 minutes off the bench. The way the Celtics are constructed, even with Hayward out, Irving should be able to direct the offense early before taking it over late.
If all goes well, the Celtics can still contend, if not with Cleveland, then at least with the likes of the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards. They’ll have to continue to see development from Brown and Smart, Tatum will need to be the player everyone thought he’d be coming out of Duke (joining Dave Cowens and Larry Bird as the only Celtics to post double-doubles in their rookie debuts was a good start), and Al Horford will have to regain some of his Hawks fire. But this is indisputably Kyrie Irving’s team now. It’s what he wanted. Let’s see what he does with it. The ball is in his hands.