CLEVELAND – Gordon Hayward hit the floor Tuesday night, and suddenly everything that was supposed to matter didn’t. Six minutes into the season opener and there was Hayward, swiveling his body toward the Cavaliers’ bench, his ankle fractured, his foot twisted nearly 120 degrees, hanging limply off his leg. Referee Monty McCutchen immediately signaled a timeout as Cavs players seated on the bench recoiled, leaped to their feet and raced off the floor.
Dislocated ankle, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. Fractured tibia, he continued. Players in white uniforms and green swarmed Hayward, offering encouragement as he was carted off the floor.
In 2014, Paul George suffered a gruesome compound fracture that sent shockwaves throughout the NBA. This was on that level. A backdoor cut, a lob, a play Hayward has run hundreds of times. On this one he found himself sandwiched between LeBron James and Jae Crowder. His leg pinned underneath him, his ankle snapping from the weight. On the court, players knew it instantly. James prayed, Dwyane Wade took a knee and Celtics players huddled together on the other end of the floor.
“You hurt for him,” Stevens said. “You really feel for him.”
Stevens’ words were steady, calm. Yet the anguish in his eyes betrayed him. Stevens’ relationship with Hayward dates back a decade. At Butler, Stevens was the first to believe in Hayward, the small-college coach relentlessly pursuing the small-high-school player. Together, they advanced to a Final Four. Because of each other they became prized NBA commodities. And seven years after Hayward’s halfcourt heave nearly upended Duke in the national title game, Hayward and Stevens reunited to chase an NBA championship.
“Hopefully,” Stevens said, “we’ll get a full recovery.”
Inside the locker room, silence. Boston rallied valiantly, improbably, after Hayward’s injury. The Celtics fell behind by 18 and pushed back to lead by four only to lose 102-99. On one end, Horford, one of four returning players from last season’s 53-win team, dressed dutifully. He was on the floor when Hayward fell. He heard the sound. He saw the leg. He knew the injury was significant. He winced when a reporter asked him about it. In 2011, Horford was in Panama with the Dominican national team when his teammate, Edgar Sosa, got caught in a pileup in the paint, Sosa’s right leg snapping in the process.
Different teammate. Different injury. Same feeling.
“It’s hard to see one of your teammates go down in that way,” Horford said. “We tried to stay together out there.”
Across the room sat Irving, his feet sunk into an ice bath, his head buried in his phone. Tonight began about Irving. His trade demand last summer rankled Cavs fans. Him declaring Boston to be a “real, live sports city” last week enraged them. He was buried in boos during introductions, a greeting that continued whenever he touched the ball. Sign makers on the concourse furiously scribbled “Cry-rie Irving” on pieces of white cardboard, with one bearing a single word: “TRAITOR.”
Midway through the first quarter, Irving’s return became an afterthought. Irving was the first Celtic to reach Hayward when he was loaded onto the stretcher, tapping his new teammate on the shoulder. In 2014, Irving was in Las Vegas when George was hurt. Three years later, Irving watched helplessly as another teammate was taken off the floor.
“The injury was tough,” Irving said. “We have to pick ourselves up and continue with the season as best we can until he’s back with us. We know ‘G’ is going to be fighting to get back on the court. We just need to keep fighting.”
With minutes to play and his team still trying to claw its way back, Hayward was loaded back onto a stretcher and carted out a side door. He will return to Boston for further tests, but team officials are cautiously optimistic. It appeared to be a clean break, sources told Yahoo Sports, and while more tests will be needed to determine the extent of the damage, Hayward may have avoided something catastrophic.
A small consolation? Perhaps. On a brutal night for Boston, for Hayward, any good news, no matter how small, is welcome.
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