The Celtics have been written off by many following Hayward’s injury. A team already heavily reliant on the big minutes and production of five excellent perimeter players – Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Hayward – would be without one of these pillars until at least the final of the Eastern Conference.
But so far in these playoffs, the Celtics haven’t just survived without Hayward – they’ve thrived. And, following the 112-94 demolition of the Toronto Raptors by Boston on Sunday afternoon in the opener of this highly anticipated Eastern Conference semi-final, the Celtics have more than proven they remain firmly in the game. conversation to get out of the East and return to the NBA Finals. for the first time in a decade.
“I believe in every one of these guys in this locker room,” Tatum said. “We’ve spent so much time together here, working out every day, we’re getting ready.
“It won’t be perfect every game. ”
For the Celtics to be successful without Hayward – who not only averages 17.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists, but who could be the team’s top passer and can keep several spots on the floor – each of their remaining guys on the perimeter needs to take on bigger roles.
This is precisely what happened on Sunday – specifically of Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart.
Walker – making his first playoff game in the second round while in his ninth NBA season – reveled in the porous Philadelphia pick-and-roll defense in the first round. As he faced Toronto’s much more formidable defenders, his life was to become much more difficult.
Instead, Walker was Boston’s best offensive player, finishing with 18 points and 10 assists in 32 minutes. More importantly, he only had two turnovers against the teeming Toronto defense, keeping Boston in check whenever he was on the pitch.
“I thought Kemba played a really good game,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said. “It’s hard to play against these guys. There were a few times we stalled because our calls were late and we weren’t in our seats.
“We’ve got to be in our seats, you’ve got to run with pace, you’ve got to do what you have to do just to get a thumbs up on these guys. And then when you get an inch they’re the best at catching. to the top. ”
The Celtics, however, did not allow Toronto to catch up thanks to the exploits of Walker and Hayward replacement in the starting lineup, Smart. Because the other Boston Perimeter players are more showy – Tatum and Brown are emerging stars, while Walker and Hayward were flashy free agent signatures – Smart can fly under the radar at times.
Spend time watching the Celtics, however, and it quickly becomes clear that as Smart goes, so does Boston.
The game started with Smart knocking down an open corner 3, helping Boston take an immediate 11-3 lead he would never give up. But while Smart took shots on Sunday, going from 5 for 9 to a distance of 3 points en route to score 21 points, it was his play on the other end that really set the tone for the Celtics.
Toronto has repeatedly put All-Star Pascal Siakam in right-block post-ups against Smart – who sacrifices about six inches in this game. But Smart, one of the best individual defenders in the league, has won the game on several occasions. And, in a game that was iconic to how that game went, Smart made an exceptional play in transition to give a surprise double-team to Fred VanVleet on center court, stealing the ball from him in a streak that s’ is over with Robert Williams getting a dunk without a Raptor within 40 feet of him.
Smart took its toll all over the place, finishing with a higher play of plus-27 in his 31 minutes, and helping to keep Siakam and VanVleet at a combined 8 for 32 performance, including 2 for 14 from 3 points. .
“Without Gordon this is definitely a great success for our team,” said Smart. “But it definitely allows the guys to progress, me included, in other ways. You just have to pick up pieces, whether it’s scoring the ball, playing defense, doing those little things. I have a lot of guys around me who are really good. on the offensive side.
“My job is to make sure we stay very, very connected defensively. This is how, by doing myself, I take over for Gordon and everyone. ”
Smart did his job in the first game. Still, for Boston to survive, it will need at least something from the rest of its roster. Daniel Theis was fragile on Sunday, but the combination of him and Robert Williams at center outclassed Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Brad Wanamaker, who has been a solid and reliable player all season off the bench supporting Walker, had seven points and six rebounds in 28 minutes, while Semi Ojeleye made an open turn 3 and did a solid job in defending the Toronto wings on the perimeter in his 23 minutes.
The Celtics are going to continue to need these small contributions in order to maintain the momentum they built in the first five games of the playoffs.
“Not a single person will do what [Gordon] statistically does what he does every night, ”Stevens said. We have to do it by committee. In the series Philly, Grant [Williams] got off the bench and had a great time. Brad [Wanamaker] got off the bench, had a great time. Marcus was his normal self. Marcus today was amazing on both sides, and I thought Semi had filled that other place really well today.
“We need another body to throw at all these different guys, because they drive it so well, so we’re not trying to replace it with one person. ”
Boston’s strength all season relied on these perimeter players to do the heavy lifting. It was a formula that, along with Hayward, seemed like it could give the Celtics the kind of success this year that they were meant to have a year ago.
The parts, even without Hayward, are doing much better this time around. Which is why, when Tatum was asked if he had any doubts whether Boston’s start to this playoff could reflect what happened last year – with five straight wins followed by four. back-to-back defeats – all he could do was laugh.
“You must have brought it last year,” Tatum said. ” It’s different. It’s just a different environment, a different team… But last year is behind us. It’s just different all around. ”
“We know it won’t be easy. They are the defending champions for a reason. “