Kyrie Irving hugs LeBron James.

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Tomase: What do they do now? How Celtics can survive without Gordon Hayward

John Tomase
October 18, 2017 - 11:38 am
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Gordon Hayward lasted just over five minutes. Eighty-one games remain on the schedule. So the obvious question is -- where do the Celtics go from here?

NBA All-Star Paul George and NFL Pro Bowler Connor Barwin, to name two, returned from similar injuries without missing a step. So on that front, we may only be writing off Hayward's Celtics debut season.

That season still exists, however, and the Celtics must find a way to navigate it. Based on their gutsy 102-99 loss in Cleveland on Tuesday night, all is not lost. Here are some observations about what comes next for Brad Stevens and Co.

1. Kyrie Irving must be great

First off, this is Kyrie Irving's team now and he's going to be asked to do his best Isaiah Thomas. Since the Celtics acquired Irving from the Cavs in August we've considered him the No. 1 star to Hayward's 1-A. But if you examine various top-100 lists entering the season, Hayward consistently ranked higher.

ESPN named Hayward the 20th best player in the NBA and Irving No. 25. The Washington Post had them at 17 and 27, respectively. Sports Illustrated put them at 16 and 21. SB Nation went with 18 and 19.

In each case, Hayward ranked higher, mainly because he's a better two-way player with more positional flexibility. His resume may lack a game-winning shot in the Finals, but he was every bit the star as Irving, whose jumper clinched Cleveland's title two years ago.

Now we're back to where we were last year, when Thomas carried an otherwise flawed offense that lacked a clear No. 2. The good news is that Irving is even better positioned to dominate as a scorer than the diminutive Thomas was.

Thomas averaged 28.9 points per game last year in one of the great individual scoring seasons in Celtics history. If Irving receives a similar volume of touches, Larry Bird's franchise mark of 29.9 points per game will almost certainly fall.

Is Irving up to the task? He left Cleveland to prove he could be the man, but he expected to have help. With Hayward gone, he'll face the same kind of defensive pressure that Thomas managed to overcome.

The opener brought hope. Playing more off the ball than we probably expected, Irving scored 22 points and dished 10 assists. He drained a trio of 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and set up Jaylen Brown (more on him in a minute) for another as the Celtics carried a lead into the final 80 seconds before LeBron James took over.

The beauty of pairing Irving and Hayward alongside the unselfish Al Horford was the matchup nightmares they'd cause. Now Irving is going to have to go it alone and we'll see if he's up to the task.

2. Jaylen Brown is ready to make a leap

"A" leap and "The" leap are two different things, and we should be careful not to get ahead of ourselves. Brown pumped in a career-high 25 points in the opener, with his raw athleticism now complemented by a more rugged NBA-ready body, as well as incrementally more control in the open floor.

Brown was the best athlete on the court on Tuesday, blowing past defenders with ease and for the most part converting at the rim. We say for the most part, because he missed a dunk and a couple of contorted layups that in future seasons will fall as he gains confidence.

The problem is the Celtics expected him to replace Jae Crowder, but now he must replace Hayward. That's simply too much to ask, particularly since Brown's jumper remains a work in progress. He went 2-for-9 on 3-pointers and missed an open look in the final seconds that would've forced overtime.

Still, there was a ton to like. He's playing with more confidence, and in the long run, the added responsibility he's forced to assume could pay dividends when Hayward returns.

3. Jayson Tatum can play

A double-double at age 19 in an NBA debut is legit, and Tatum looked like he belonged. After being swatted by James on the first shot of his NBA career and going 0-for-5 in the first half, the rookie settled down and scored 14 while grabbing 10 rebounds. He scored twice on aggressive dives to the basket in the final three minutes as the Celtics clung to a three-point lead.

Like Brown, however, Tatum is going to be asked to step forward with Hayward gone. In a perfect world, he'd average about 20 minutes a game, and not the 37 he played on Tuesday night. He's coming off a freshman season at Duke that lasted all of 29 games. Teenagers generally don't handle the rigors of 82 very well. It's an adjustment.

But as we recalibrate our expectations to focus on what this season might mean for the future, Tatum will gain valuable experience and hopefully prove entertaining along the way.

4. It's too bad they can't keep Marcus Smart

Their financial flexibility eliminated by Hayward and Irving, the Celtics failed to reach an extension with Smart before Monday's deadline, which means he'll enter restricted free agency following the season.

Smart's flaws remain apparent -- he clanged all four of his 3-pointers and shot 5-for-16 -- but his unique skills were also on display. He became a legit matchup problem in the post in the second half, especially when paired with Cleveland's Kyle Korver. He also wreaked havoc on the defensive end, with nine rebounds, two steals and two blocks.

No matter how badly Smart misses any particular jumper, his imperfections do not change the fact that he's a winning player. And however many victories the Celtics claim this season, don't be surprised if Smart's in the middle of most of them.

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