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August 18, 2020

How does Gordon Hayward injury change Sixers vs. Celtics series?

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Down Ben Simmons, the Sixers could use any breaks they can get in their series against the Boston Celtics. The first major one arrived in the second half of Game 1 — a Gordon Hayward injury that will leave the Celtics down a wing through all of the first round, and perhaps until the Eastern Conference Finals depending on whether Boston advances.

Hayward, the Celtics announced on Tuesday afternoon, suffered a Grade III sprain in his right ankle in the fourth quarter of Game 1, and has been ruled out for the next four weeks. Suddenly, a thin Celtics team is even thinner, and Boston has decisions to make.

The first seems rather obvious. Marcus Smart, Boston's most rugged defender, has been a staple in many of their most-played lineups all year. While Smart doesn't bring the offensive utility Hayward does to the table, he slots right into their small, athletic starting group, and will not bat an eye during closing time.

"There will be a lot more emphasis on Jayson [Tatum], Jaylen [Brown] and Kemba [Walker], I'll be the odd man out where I have to be ready to knock down shots right away, as [opposed to] coming off the bench and trying to ease into the game," Smart told reporters Tuesday. "In that aspect, it changes. But I still got to be the defensive pest that I am, the best defensive player in the league that I am, and continue to be there for my team."

That leaves Brett Brown and Co. with a decision to make: do you continue to try to win the series on your terms with "big ball," or do you size down to match a Celtics lineup that plays bigger than their size as it is? So far, Brett Brown has been vague about the response.

"I think everybody saw where the lion’s share of the defensive minutes were distributed to Tatum and Kemba Walker, but that’s the first thing," Brown said Tuesday. "Secondly, trying to get out in front of, ‘What does that mean?’ You would assume Marcus Smart, as an example, will have far more responsibility, minutes, those types of things. Just trying to look out a little bit further on both the starting lineup and what impact that is going to, the ripple effect is going to have on others."

To the first point: Matisse Thybulle and Josh Richardson earned the lion's share of the minutes against Boston's top perimeter players. Thybulle had a terrific night against Boston's best wing, while Richardson's success came where it typically does, on the smaller Walker.

(A note: the NBA's matchup data is missing a shot attempt for Walker, who went 7/16 from the field on Monday night.)

 Assignment Thybulle defendingRichardson defending Everyone else 
 Jayson Tatum 2/9 (22.2%)4/6 (66.7%) 4/6 (66.7%) 
 Kemba Walker0/0 (N/A) 0/2 (0%)  7/13 (53.8%)
 Jaylen Brown 2/2 (100%)0/1 (0%) 7/13 (53.8%)

"I'm very influenced by and large with just trying to match minutes. I thought Matisse did a great job," Brown said Tuesday. "I thought J-Rich was J-Rich, and we need them to be elite defensively on those two great scorers. So anything's on the table once we've learned this Gordon Hayward news."

Reading between the lines, or at least looking at how the game unfolded, it certainly seems Matisse Thybulle is in line for the promotion to the starting lineup he was in consideration for entering the series. There's an obvious candidate for demotion, too, following a dismal performance from Al Horford in Game 1. You can't match minutes if you leave Thybulle on the bench and let Tatum (or Walker) get going early, so it almost feels inevitable for Thybulle to step into the starting group.

There are questions left to answer there even if we assume Thybulle makes the jump and shadows Tatum all game. Tobias Harris might not be an ideal cover on Brown, considering the athleticism mismatch and Brown's improved pull-up shooting. But you're at least matching a wing with a wing instead of hoping a big man can cross-match, and Brown was candid about where Horford struggled on Monday.

"Jaylen Brown had a great game. I think that he is, in general, a difficult matchup for anybody," Brown said. "And so defensively, I put [Al] in the situation that does have some punishment when you’re trying to guard such an athlete like Jaylen Brown. We hope as a team we can help Al more in that environment."

Frankly, that doesn't leave Horford with much utility in this series, though that much has been clear based on a season's worth of evidence about the poor fit.

Because of Smart's already prominent role for the Celtics, it's hard to project Hayward's loss as a huge win for starting and closing lineups no matter what the Sixers decide to do. It's further down the rotation where Philly has to make up ground, and where Boston's thin rotation will be tested the most.

They don't exactly have a litany of options to replace Hayward's blend of playmaking, scoring, and size. Brad Wanamaker has earned a lot of trust with the Celtics' coaching staff, but he'll probably remain a second-unit stabilizer. Romeo Langford is a potential two-way contributor for Boston, but he has torn ligaments in his wrist and only played in garbage time in Game 1.

That probably leaves the Celtics deciding between Semi Ojeleye and Grant Williams, and only the latter appeared in Monday's opener. Ojeleye is a much-improved shooter this season, climbing to a career-high 37.8 percent from deep, but both players are probably guys the Sixers would force to beat them from the perimeter. Philadelphia employed some dramatic sagging against Boston's non-star rotation players in Game 1, and increased minutes for more iffy shooters would alter how the Sixers can defend the real threats in the Celtics' rotation.

Stevens, as is often the case, was brief in his remarks on Tuesday afternoon, and we almost certainly won't learn how it all shakes out until Game 2 gets underway on Wednesday evening. Until then, the Celtics' veterans remain confident the young guys can fill in admirably in Hayward's absence.

"We're doing everything we can as the older guys, the guys that's been here, to really get those guys ready on what to look for and what to expect when they get in the game," Smart said. "We know they're not going to be perfect just like we're not going to be perfect, but as long as we are on the same page and playing hard and communicating out there, we think we'll be all right."

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