The night after, Celtics stumble forward without Gordon Hayward

BOSTON -- This was supposed to be a celebration. The Boston Celtics' home opener on Wednesday night was supposed to be our first glimpse of the team's two new stars -- Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward -- together in a regular-season game on the TD Garden floor.

But all that got dashed when Hayward landed awkwardly a little more than five minutes into his Celtics debut on Tuesday night in Cleveland. Coming down off balance after leaping for an alley-oop, Hayward crashed to the floor and his left ankle bent awkwardly away from his left leg. Players on the Cleveland bench nearby immediately looked away at the gruesome sight.

Hayward spent Wednesday night four miles southwest of TD Garden at New England Baptist Hospital, where he underwent surgery to repair the fractured tibia and dislocated ankle that will likely cost him the rest of the 2017-18 season, his agent told ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.

Boston did its damnedest to include Hayward in Wednesday's festivities, team officials going so far as to tape a message from Hayward in his hospital bed earlier in the day. It achieved the desired effect -- producing maybe the biggest cheers of the night when it aired before tipoff -- and yet it also underscored Hayward's absence.

Short-handed Boston endured maddening stretches of sloppy basketball and, for the second straight night, watched a fourth-quarter lead slip away in a 108-100 loss to the visiting Milwaukee Bucks.

Make no mistake, the Bucks are a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference. Giannis Antetokounmpo dazzled with 37 points and 13 rebounds and Celtics coach Brad Stevens noted that, based on Antetokounmpo's play thus far in the new campaign, "That's an MVP candidate for sure."

Some wondered if Irving might be able to make a run at the billing of MVP candidate in Boston, especially after Hayward was lost to the leg injury. On this night, Irving struggled, missing 18 of the 25 shots he took and finishing with 17 points over 39 minutes.

Irving has pleaded for patience and noted after Wednesday's game how the Celtics are leaning heavily on players who didn't log much time with the first unit in the preseason. Boston employed four rookies as part of Wednesday's 10-man rotation, which included the 2017-18 season debuts of rookies Abdel Nader and Daniel Theis (both were DNPs the night before in Cleveland).

Irving did not try to run from the obvious difficulty in Boston -- reshaping its rotations after the loss of Hayward.

"As you can see, it's not an ideal situation," said Irving. "So as cliché as it is, everybody's going to probably say that's life. But it is, man. S--- happens. And excuse my language for everybody here, but it does.

"The individual that we have in Gordon, he's very special. He's going to fight like hell to get back on the floor. I know he's already -- there's a fire burning inside of him. We see the amount of support that guy got. That should tell you the type of person, and who he is, and what he represents -- not only to the Boston Celtics but to the rest of the league. So we want him to get back healthy, but we also understand that his health comes first. And he's going to do everything possible to get back on the floor. And it's our job to lift him up."

The fact that Hayward wasn't present on Wednesday was inescapable.

After Boston's starting five was announced during pregame introductions, the Celtics showed images of Hayward on the JumboTron then cut to a graphic that featured Hayward's No. 20 and a message that read: "To Gordon, Get better, come back stronger" and was signed from "Your Celtics Family."

Celtics guard Marcus Smart, the longest-tenured member of the team after Boston's roster teardown, was set to address fans before the game but almost immediately directed fans to the JumboTron for a special message.

"So as cliché as it is, everybody's going to probably say that's life. But it is, man."
Kyrie Irving

Hayward, dressed in a hospital gown, appeared on the video board to thunderous cheers.

"What's up, everybody? I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who has kept me in their thoughts and prayers," said Hayward. "I'm going to be all right. It's hurting me that I can't be there for the home opener, I want nothing more [than] to be with my teammates and walk out onto that floor tonight. I'll be supporting you guys from here. I wish you the best of luck. Kill it tonight."

Before the game, a long line of fans gathered in the concourse to autograph an oversized card with Hayward's image. The card was hashtagged #GetWellGordon and quickly filled with well-wishes.

In the crowd, fans had homemade posters for Hayward, including one that read simply, "Prayers for Hayward." During the second quarter, an organic "Gor-don Hay-ward" chant bounced around the Garden.

But while Antetokounmpo was throwing down some powerful alley-oops (including one particularly nasty finish over poor Aron Baynes in the final frame), Hayward was heading in for surgery.

As much as the Celtics wanted to use Hayward as motivation to move forward on Wednesday night, the loss only hammered home the challenges they face without him.

"We've got a lot of young guys," said Stevens. "I'm hopeful that we can find the right combinations. We obviously didn't anticipate going maybe this far into the bench this early. ... We'll find it."

Make no mistake, there is no panic from these Celtics who, even before Hayward's injury, believed they could endure some lumps to start the season. A 4-0 preseason, as deceptive as any exhibition record is, gave a misleading appearance that Boston had found chemistry and cohesion faster than expected.

But when Hayward went down on Tuesday night, everything changed for this team. The Celtics' youngest players -- Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the No. 3 picks in each of the past two drafts -- have been spectacular, and their development in Hayward's absence will be particularly key to Boston's ability to compete further down the road.

The Celtics simply need to retool on the fly. And Irving suggests it's not as easy as hitting the reset button.

"We don't got time for Square 1," said Irving. "I'll tell you that right now. We don't have time to go back to Square 1. It's time to just figure it out moment to moment. And we'll be all right.

"I've had the unique opportunity to be in some situations that tested your character. And this is one of those times. And, like I said, we just continue to be there for one another, look each other in the eye and be honest, make sure that our preparation is perfect, and going out there, and we have fun, and we're playing the Boston Celtics way. And we'll be fine."