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Celtics Once Again Dealing With Life Without Hayward

By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- Gordon Hayward's injury won't sink Boston's title hopes. But it certainly doesn't help the team's chances to win it all this year.

At least Brad Stevens and the Celtics have some experience -- and have enjoyed some success -- when it comes to dealing with life without Hayward.

"It's our job to make up for all the great things that he does, by committee, and we'll attempt to do so," Stevens said Tuesday. "We've lived this before and we're going to have to have other people step up. That's why you have a team."

The do-everything forward is on the shelf for at least a month with a Grade III ankle sprain he suffered late in Boston's Game 1 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. It's a severe sprain, so that timetable may be on the optimistic side. Add in the fact Hayward's potential return in mid-September lines up with the time he was expected to leave the NBA bubble to be at the birth of his baby boy, and the Celtics may not get Hayward back until the late in the Eastern Conference Finals, if they were so fortunate to make it that far.

Making the Finals without Hayward will certainly be a steep hill to climb for the Celtics. They went 14-6 without Hayward during the regular season, with the forward missing 13 games early in the season after breaking a bone in his hand in November. But that was the regular season against the likes of the Nets, the Kings and the Wizards, not playoff series against the likes of the 76ers (albeit undermanned without Ben Simmons), the Raptors and the Bucks. This time around, it'll be a lot more difficult for the Celtics to fill the void left by Hayward's absence.

And that void is rather large. Though he's seen as the third or fourth wheel on the Celtics' machine, Hayward is an integral part to having all the pieces moving in the right direction. He does it all, and he does it all well fairly consistently. The knock on Hayward has been that he lacks that killer instinct to take over games, but he fit his role in Boston perfectly. Much like Kemba Walker, the veteran is A-OK taking a backseat to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

He was also pretty effective from the backseat, averaging 17.5 points while shooting a career-best 50 percent from the floor and 38 percent from three. Add in his 6.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game, and Hayward did it all for Boston. He was even better in bubble action, averaging 18.7 points and a team-best 7.7 rebounds per game in Orlando.

Now Stevens has to find a new Swiss Army knife-like player to take over Hayward's role. As Stevens said Tuesday, it will really fall on everyone else to step up a bit more, from the Jays to Kemba Walker. But Hayward's absence will have a trickle down effect on the entire roster.

In the starting lineup, Stevens will likely turn to Marcus Smart, who filled in whenever any of Boston's starting wings went down. The C's bulldog off the bench actually started 40 of his 60 games this season, a testament to just how much the Celtics played without their full cadre of players in 2020. The "Hospital Celtics" -- as they were known for stretches of the year -- seemed to play better when someone was out of the lineup, though we shouldn't expect that now that the postseason has arrived.

Another option is keeping Smart as the first player off the bench, and putting Semi Ojeleye in the starting five. Ojeleye knows the Boston system and is a strong defender, though Gordon Hayward he is not. But putting Semi out to start games wouldn't disrupt Stevens' rotation too much in Hayward's absence. Grant Williams, Romeo Langford and potentially even Robert Williams may also see an uptick in action with Hayward on the shelf.

But really, it will be a work in progress for the next few games. It won't be easy to replace a 50 percent shooter who also created for his teammates, and it won't be easy to win without Hayward for the long run. But it's something the Celtics have navigated through before, and with their sights set on Banner 18, the team is ready to show that they have the depth to keep their quest going until Hayward can return.

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