Everything was going well for the Boston Celtics in San Antonio as they built a commanding lead over the Spurs in the first half on Saturday.
The Celtics hadn't beaten the Spurs in San Antonio since 2011 and they snapped that streak, extending their winning streak this season to seven games boasting a 7-1 record, the best in the Eastern Conference.
But toward the end of the first half, forward Gordon Hayward ran into a screen that he didn't see and came up holding his hand. At halftime, it was reported that Hayward had suffered a fractured left hand.
After undergoing successful surgery on Monday, the team reported that Hayward is expected to return to play in "approximately six weeks."
#NEBHInjuryReport Gordon Hayward underwent successful surgery today to repair a fourth metacarpal fracture in his left hand. The injury occurred during Saturday night's game against the San Antonio Spurs.⁰- Boston Celtics (@celtics) November 12, 2019
He is expected to return to play in approximately 6 weeks.
This comes as a huge blow for Boston, as Hayward was off to a roaring start to the 2019-20 season. Through seven games, Hayward looked back to his old self averaging 20.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game shooting 56.4% from the field and 44.4% from beyond the arc.
So what does this mean for the Celtics in the time-being?
Even smaller small-ball
As it is, the Celtics are already an undersized team. When newly signed centre Enes Kanter went down with a knee injury in the first game, this team became even smaller.
Their starting lineup of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward and Daniel Theis already consisted of two true small forwards - Tatum or Hayward - often punching up a weight class on the defensive end, depending on the matchup.
Now, it's likely that Marcus Smart fills Hayward's spot in the starting unit, making this team even more undersized than it already was.
Luckily for the Celtics, Smart has already been well-versed in defending in the post this season. According to NBA stats, Smart defended Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love on 31 possessions, holding the All-Star to eight points on eight shots. Another example is only allowing reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to attempt two shots on 17 possessions, forcing him to turn the ball over three times.
Expect to see a lot more of Smart defending opposing big men.
Aside from Smart filling a spot in the starting lineup, it's important to note that Kanter is close to returning. It was reported before Saturday's win over the Spurs that the Celtics' big man scrimmaged at practice on Friday and "felt good", which means he'll likely be back sooner than later.
More Jaylen Brown
Hayward leaves behind a void of 20.3 points and 4.6 assists per game along with a usage rate of 21.9% - the third-highest on the team behind Kemba Walker (28.7%) and Jayson Tatum (26.4%).
Before this injury the Celtics were the only team in the NBA that had three players averaging 20 or more points per game, being all three of the aforementioned. Now with Hayward set to miss an extended period of time, they're going to call upon Walker and Tatum even more, in addition a huge necessity that Jaylen Brown continues to excel on the offensive end.
Since returning from his illness, Brown has been fantastic for Boston. He scored a team-high 30 points shooting 10-for-18 (55.6%) from the field in the win over the Spurs and the Celtics are going to need him to keep a similar energy on that end of the floor without Hayward.
☘️ @FCHWPO pours in a season-high 30 PTS, helping the @celtics improve to 7-1! #Celtics pic.twitter.com/zCujNdxRbt- NBA (@NBA) November 10, 2019
He entered the contest averaging 16.0 points per game and if Boston is going to continue to be as successful as they have been to start the season, it will be because Brown bumps that average closer to the 20.0 points per game mark.
He was aggressive in attacking the rim against the Spurs, getting to the free throw line 10 times, tying his career-high in free throw attempts in a game. Brown is typically a poor free throw shooter (66.0% for his career), but hit nine of his 10 attempts in this contest, an encouraging sign for a player who is going to need to score the rock more often.
Celtics depth put to the test
The three biggest questions for the Celtics entering the 2019-20 season were focused upon their defence, size and depth.
Through their 7-1 start, it has become clear that defence is not an issue with this scrappy group. They're fiesty on that end of the court, playing hard while communicating and switching well beyond their experience in playing together. According to NBA stats, they rank in the top-five in the NBA in defensive rating and points against. They're top-10 in turnovers forced and steals per game while ranking fourth in defensive rebounds per game.
Their lack of size is still in question, but they've found ways to work around it. They're top-10 in rebounds per game, but rank second-to-last in opponent rebounds per game. In a hat-tip to their defence, though, they rank in the top-10 in opponent points in the paint despite missing an established rim protector.
But without Hayward, they'll have to dive deeper into their inexperienced rotation.
It's vital that the Celtics continue to get quality minutes from Robert Williams and Grant Williams off the bench. Grant Williams has been solid in doing the little things on both ends of the floor in 16.6 minutes per game, while Robert Williams just had a big game of 11 points, seven rebounds and six blocks against San Antonio. Those two should see a slight uptick in minutes while Hayward is out.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.