Gordon Hayward is consoled.

Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports

Tomase: Gordon Hayward injury too cruel for words

John Tomase
October 17, 2017 - 10:33 pm
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The emotions strike like a sandstorm, blasting you from every direction. Horror. Revulsion. Disbelief. Guilt.

One minute, the Celtics are taking the floor for their most promising season in a decade. Barely five minutes later, players on both teams are huddling in prayer, hoping Gordon Hayward's career isn't over.

"Gruesome" doesn't begin to describe the ankle injury Hayward suffered on a failed alley-oop in the first quarter of Tuesday's NBA opener against the Cavaliers. "Sick" doesn't remotely convey how we all felt after watching it.

In the immediate aftermath, it's hard to untangle the sorrow you feel for Hayward from what it means for the Celtics. You only get one shot to go for broke, and Danny Ainge bided his time brilliantly before building an Eastern Conference contender around Hayward, Kyrie Irving and Al Horford.

Wednesday was to be their unveiling, and at the moment Irving lobbed his pass to a back-cutting Hayward, the Celtics had delivered. They led 12-9. The atmosphere was electric. The promise of the offseason had yielded to the excitement of the present. It felt gloriously real.

Until it didn't.

"Their season's over," analyst Charles Barkley declared on TNT's halftime show, saying what we were all thinking.

You want your only concern to be for Hayward, the 27-year-old All-Star who just moved his family across the country to pursue a banner. His arrival made Boston an even more enticing destination for Irving, made it that much easier for Ainge to pull the trigger on the franchise-altering deal that acquired the Cavs star in August.

Now it's over -- maybe for good, but almost certainly for this season. Who knows how long it will take Hayward to heal, or what kind of player he'll be when he returns? Maybe he'll be Thunder forward Paul George, who returned from an equally nauseating injury to become an All-Star. But he could just as likely be Cavs guard Derrick Rose, a former MVP who never regained his form after blowing out his knee.

It makes you want to throw up in ways that Celtics fans haven't experienced since the deaths of Reggie Lewis and Len Bias, the only moments in franchise history I can think of that felt worse.

Then you remind yourself to try to imagine what Hayward is feeling right now. He's entering his prime. He arrived shouldering expectations of returning the Celtics to glory. Now he must begin the long road back before he has even started. It's too cruel for words.

The season will go on, just like Tuesday's game went on. Making matters worse, in a twisted way, was how the Celtics scrapped without Hayward. After appearing understandably discombobulated in the first half, they made a run in the third quarter behind athletic second-year man Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum, erasing an 18-point lead and getting two cracks at the tying 3-pointer in the 102-99 loss.

The plan had been for Irving, Hayward, Al Horford and Marcus Smart to carry the load, with the youngsters providing depth, energy, and promise. That calculus was just shattered. One or both must step into Hayward's shoes.

Whatever they manage the rest of the way, it's going to feel hollow. No matter how well the Celtics play, we'll know it could've been better, should've been better.

This was supposed to be the start of something great, with Gordon Hayward playing a leading role. Maybe one day that will still be the case.

But for all we know, the Irving-Hayward Era just ended after six minutes.

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