LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — When Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward limped off the court with a right ankle sprain late in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of their first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers, it appeared Boston’s status as a credible championship contender was in danger.
The Celtics were written off by many in the wake of Hayward’s injury. A team already heavily reliant on big minutes and production from five excellent perimeter players — Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Hayward — would be without one of those pillars until at least the Eastern Conference finals.
But so far in these playoffs, the Celtics have not only survived without Hayward — they’ve thrived. And, after Boston’s 112-94 demolition of the Toronto Raptors Sunday afternoon in Game 1 of this highly anticipated Eastern Conference semifinal series, the Celtics have more than proved they remain firmly in the conversation to emerge from the East and arrive back in the NBA Finals for the first time in a decade.
“I believe in each and every one of those guys in that locker room,” Tatum said. “We’ve spent so much time together down here, putting in work every day, we come prepared.
“It’s not going to be perfect every game.”
For the Celtics to succeed without Hayward — who not only averaged 17.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists but might be the team’s best passer and can guard multiple spots on the floor — each of their remaining guys on the perimeter must take on bigger roles.
That was precisely what happened Sunday — specifically from Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart.
Walker — playing in his first second-round playoff game despite being in his ninth NBA season — feasted off Philadelphia’s porous pick-and-roll defense in the first round. Going up against Toronto’s far more formidable defenders, his life was expected to get much more difficult.
Instead, Walker was Boston’s best player offensively, finishing with 18 points and 10 assists in 32 minutes. More importantly, he had only two turnovers against Toronto’s swarming defense, keeping Boston in control whenever he was on the court.
“I thought Kemba played a really good game,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said. “It’s hard to play against those guys. There was a couple times where we stalled because our calls were late and because we weren’t in our spots.
“We have to be in our spots, you have to execute with pace, you have to do what you need to do just to get an inch on these guys. And then when you do get an inch, they’re the best at catching up.”
The Celtics, though, didn’t allow Toronto to catch up thanks to the exploits of both Walker and Hayward’s replacement in the starting lineup, Smart. Because Boston’s other perimeter players are flashier — Tatum and Brown are emerging stars, while Walker and Hayward were flashy free-agent signings — Smart can fly under the radar at times.
Spend time watching the Celtics, however, and it quickly becomes clear that as Smart goes, so goes Boston.
The game opened with Smart knocking down an open corner 3, helping Boston jump out to an immediate 11-3 lead it would never relinquish. But while Smart made shots Sunday, going 5-for-9 from 3-point range en route to scoring 21 points, it was his play at the other end that truly set the tone for the Celtics.
Toronto repeatedly got All-Star Pascal Siakam into post-ups on the right block against Smart — who is sacrificing about six inches in that matchup. But Smart, one of the best individual defenders in the league, repeatedly won the matchup. And, in a play that was emblematic of how this game went, Smart made an outstanding play in transition to give a surprise double-team to Fred VanVleet at center court, stealing the ball from him in a sequence that ended with Robert Williams getting a dunk without a Raptor within 40 feet of him.
Robert Williams III shows off athleticism with a dunk over a defender, then the transition windmill dunk.
Smart wreaked havoc all over the place, finishing with a game-high plus-27 in his 31 minutes, and helping to hold Siakam and VanVleet to a combined 8-for-32 performance including 2-for-14 from 3-point range.
“With Gordon out, it’s definitely a big hit for our team,” Smart said. “But it definitely allows guys to step up, myself included, in other ways. Just picking up bits and pieces, whether it’s scoring the ball, playing defense, doing those little things. I got a lot of guys around me that are very good on the offensive end.
“My job is to make sure we stay very, very connected on the defensive end. That’s how, by me doing me, I pick up the slack for Gordon and everybody else.”
Smart did his job in Game 1. Still, for Boston to survive, it’s going to need at least something from the rest of its roster. Daniel Theis was shaky Sunday, but the combination of him and Robert Williams at center outplayed Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Brad Wanamaker, who has been a solid, dependable player all season off the bench backing up Walker, had seven points and six rebounds in 28 minutes, while Semi Ojeleye made an open corner 3 and did a solid job defending Toronto’s wings on the perimeter in his 23 minutes.
The Celtics are going to continue to need those small contributions in order to maintain the momentum they’ve built up through the first five games of the playoffs.
“Not one person is going to do what [Gordon] does statistically, what he does every night,” Stevens said. “We have to do it by committee. In the Philly series, Grant [Williams] came off the bench and had big moments. Brad [Wanamaker] came off the bench, had big moments. Marcus was his normal self. Marcus today was unbelievable on both ends, and I thought Semi really filled that other spot well today.
“We need another body to throw at all these different guys, because they drive it so well, so we’re not trying to replace him with one person.”
Boston’s strength all season has been relying on those perimeter players to do the heavy lifting. It was a formula that, with Hayward, seemed like it could result in the Celtics having the kind of success this year that they were supposed to have a year ago.
The pieces, even without Hayward, fit far better this time around. It’s why, when Tatum was asked if he had any concerns about whether Boston’s start to this postseason could mirror what happened last year — with five straight victories followed by four straight losses — all he could do was laugh.
“You had to bring last year up,” Tatum said. “This is different. This is just a different environment, different team … But last year is behind us. This is just different all around.
“We know it’s not going to be easy. They’re the defending champs for a reason.”