During halftime of the Celtics’ game against the Mavericks on Monday night, the team received word that Gordon Hayward had undergone successful surgery in New York to repair a broken bone in his left hand.
The forward is expected to be sidelined for about six weeks, and that will make it quite challenging for Boston to continue this surprising early surge.
While Hayward is out, the Celtics will lean more heavily on their other stars, like Jayson Tatum. On Monday, Tatum had the worst offensive game of his career, making just 1 of 18 shots, including one open one that thudded off the side of the backboard as if the ball had been filled with sand.
Nevertheless, improbably and impressively, this streak rolled on anyway, with a 116-106 victory. The Celtics have won eight games in a row and they own the best record in the NBA.
And with each game that passes, including several wins without key pieces, it is becoming increasingly likely that this is no fluke.
“Of course it’s going to be tough trying to make up for a player of Gordon’s caliber,” point guard Kemba Walker said. “But we also have guys who can do a lot to help this team. And you see it . . . Guys just have to step up their games. That’s just how it has to be. It’s all about the next guy. And that’s what it’s going to be for us all year.”
While other players will need to assume larger roles with Hayward out, the Celtics will count on Walker to do just about everything even when the roster is full. So far, he has been up to the task, and he has found it invigorating.
In the fourth quarter Monday, soon after Dallas had clawed back from a 13-point deficit to take its first lead, Walker needed just over one minute to pour in three 3-pointers that helped stretch the advantage back to 101-94.
After the third one, a dart from the right corner with 4:12 left, Walker peered up at this bubbly Garden crowd, pounded his chest, and roared. This is exactly what he signed up for.
Walker made 8 of 14 3-pointers and finished with 29 points.
“I think that was a great moment probably for him, a big game for him to take over in the fourth quarter like that,” Jaylen Brown said. “It’s what we want to see. We lean on him in those moments, so it was great experiencing that.”
But Brown was being modest, because the Celtics have been leaning on him quite a bit, too. He followed up his sterling 30-point night in the win over the Spurs on Saturday with 25 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 assists.
Brown’s decision-making, facilitating, finishin,g and general urgency have all spiked since last year, and he is starting to make his four-year, $107 million contract extension look like a bargain for the Celtics.
Brown saw no reason for celebration, however. Not yet.
“I’m just continuing to work,” he said. “Trust your teammates, trust yourself, trust your coaching staff, front office and just play basketball. That’s what I’m here to do. No expectations, just hoop. That’s it.”
Those two strong performances helped the Celtics shrug off a stunningly bad shooting night from Tatum. But no one was really concerned about that afterward. Stevens said he does not lose sleep over missed shots. And Tatum, for his part, posted on his Snapchat account late Monday night appearing to be back on the court at the team’s practice facility, looking to get rid of the sour taste.
The win, of course, probably made it easier to stomach.
Last season, the Celtics tripped over themselves at the start while trying to meet great expectations and started just 10-10. Now, they are 8-1, and their next two games will come against two of the worst teams in the NBA: the Wizards and the injury-ravaged Warriors. So there is a real possibility 10-10 could be followed by 10-1.
“We’re just playing,” Walker said. “We’re not even worried about the record right now. It’s a great record, don’t get it twisted. I’m loving it. We’re all loving it, that we’re able to win these games. But we’re playing well. I honestly feel like we still have so much growth as a group and we know that as a group, which is really special to me.”
The Celtics led by as many as 13 points midway through the third quarter on Monday before Dallas whittled away at the deficit behind some jaw-dropping plays by the rising 20-year-old superstar, Luka Doncic.
Doncic scored 22 of his 34 points in the second half, and also added 9 assists and 6 rebounds. But his sidekick Kristaps Porzingis did not provide much help, going just 1 for 11 and playing less than 20 minutes due to foul trouble.
Soon after Hardaway put Dallas in front, 88-86, with 7:23 left, Walker struck with his barrage of 3-pointers and Smart followed it up with a 3-pointer and a 3-point play. Just like that, it was a 12-point lead again, and 8-1 arrived without a tense finish.