It was an injury that shocked the NBA world. When Gordon Hayward went down with a gruesome broken ankle just five minutes into the start of the season, the Quicken Loans Arena fell unnaturally quiet. As the medical staff worked to pop his foot back into place, even the Cleveland Cavaliers and their fans looked on with concern for their new rival.
Meanwhile, the Celtics huddled together, trying to make sense of what had just happened. But none of the men in green looked more confused and lost than Kyrie Irving, who was in literally in tears.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Just a few months ago, the Boston Celtics had won the Gordon Hayward sweepstakes, courting the former Jazzman to come to Beantown with championship aspirations. The following month, another blockbuster move was sealed when the Celtics traded Isaiah Thomas to the Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. Fans were polarized: Thomas had become a hometown hero, the Cinderella story of a little guy playing larger than life, beloved by the community for playing his heart and soul out. Could Irving really replace that?
In the end, Celtics fans had no say in the matter, as General Manager Danny Ainge had pulled the trigger with cold ruthlessness. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were the new leaders of the team.
According to their introductory press conferences, Irving wouldn’t have had it any other way. Three years playing together with LeBron James were great, and there was nothing but love for Cleveland, with whom he won a ring in 2016. But Kyrie had an itch that simply wouldn’t go away: the sense that he had bumped against a ceiling with the Cavs, and that there was no way he was going to soar any higher as an individual player. Not while he played in the shadow of LeBron James.
No, Kyrie had to stop being the Robin to LeBron’s Batman. He had to stop being the sidekick. He had to evolve, and so he requested the trade. He had to be the man.
He got it, swapping jerseys with Isaiah. Kyrie and Gordon—along with Al Horford, and the Celtics’ youth movement in Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart—were going to do great things together.
The season began, and then the injury.
It’s not hard to see how the incident affected the Celtics’ mindset. They completely lost their focus in the opening game, ultimately falling short against the Cavs. The following game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Giannis had a field day. The Celtics had as rough a start as could be imagined, and doubt shrouded the team—a looming dark cloud that said their season was over before it had ever really begun.
To make matters even more difficult, the Boston Celtics were very young—the fifth youngest in the league in terms of average age—and were relying on the 27-year old Hayward for his veteran experience. With so many rookies on the rooster, there had to be an anchor for the squad’s yearlong campaign. Only Al Horford (31) and Aron Baynes (30) were older.
Irving and the kids could have spiraled down and out. They had every excuse to do so, every right to admit that all contendership hopes went down with Gordon.
But then, something else happened: The Celtics beat the 76ers. And then the Knicks. And then the Bucks, the Spurs, the Heat, the Kings, and just now, Russell Westbrook's Thunders. The Celtics started winning games, one after the other.
Amid the chaos of the season’s start (the Cavs and Warriors both struggled more than expected, plus other injuries like Jeremy Lin’s and Chris Paul’s), Kyrie Irving got what he wanted. It wasn’t exactly how he envisioned it, and any silver linings in the wake of Hayward’s injury are sparse, but he got what he asked for: the chance to be the man.
It became very quickly apparent, through Irving, that playing for the Celtics was a different animal from playing for the Cavaliers. The Cavs ran games largely through LeBron James; the offense usually began and ended with him. That allowed Kyrie plenty of room to operate. When you’re playing with the King, the defense hounds the King, and that means lanes open up for you. Kyrie’s iso game was also pretty good, which meant that when James sat, Kyrie had permission to go one-on-one with his man, and the other Cavaliers would get out of the way.
There’s no such thing with the Celtics. Coach Brad Stevens’ whole game scheme is predicated on ball movement, on always making one extra pass to get the best shot available. The Celtics don’t have a four-time MVP like James, so instead, everyone is involved on offense, touching the ball and scattering opponents to keep them guessing. On defense, everyone needs to learn how to switch, be it guard, forward, or center. Most importantly, hero ball is saved as a final resort. On Brad Stevens’s team, you pass.
Early on, it seemed that Kyrie was having a hard time investing into this system, posting career lows in field goal percentage in his first few games and often looking hesitant about his shot. But out of necessity, Irving has unlearned Cleveland’s game and gone all in on Boston’s, building much needed chemistry with the rest of the Celtics’ younger cast and involving everyone on his journey to be “a more complete player,” as he called it. The results couldn’t be argued: the Celtics are winning games.
A little more than two weeks since the Hayward injury, and Boston is now high up on the standings, with an impressive victory against the Spurs and vengeance against the Bucks. Each game, Irving has shown to be more willing to make the extra pass, and yet still manages to occasionally show off the elite scoring ability that made him such a prized acquisition in the first place. He’s steadily shedding his previous reputation as a lousy defender, too, as he’s now number one in the league in steals. Irving is leading by example.
But if there’s still any doubt regarding Kyrie’s potential leadership qualities, his own teammates seem vocal about putting them to rest:
#Celtics Terry Rozier called Kyrie Irving "our leader" and Semi Ojeleye "The Incredible Hulk" after tonight's game.— Scott Souza (@Scott_Souza) October 31, 2017
Rozier on Kyrie: "He didn’t come here on no cockiness, none of that, and we respect him for that."— Adam Himmelsbach (@AdamHimmelsbach) October 31, 2017
Circumstance has baptized the Celtics’ prized young wings—Tatum and Brown—by fire. Without Hayward, they’ve started carrying heavier loads than was ever expected, and have performed as admirably as can be expected from 19- and 20-year-olds. The other rookies on the roster—Daniel Theis and Semi Ojeleye—have displayed toughness in their new roles. And the greatest quality Irving has shown so far has been his willingness to defer credit to those other young faces: “[Adjusting my individual talents to the greater of the good of the group] has been going a lot better than even I expected, because of the guys that we have in this locker room,” he said, after a solid victory over the Spurs. “They make it a lot easier for me to just adjust myself.”
It’s November now, and the season is in full swing. The identities of teams across the league are becoming clearer with each passing game. And though the Celtics had to reconfigure theirs on the fly, they seem to be doing okay. Kyrie looks over his shoulder, and his days under LeBron James’ wing look farther off in the distance than ever before. Then he looks ahead, because he’s got his own team now—one that’s putting the league on notice. Kyrie’s days as the new alpha dog have just begun, and they’ll only get better. So don’t worry about them. The kids are alright. They’ll be fine.