Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 19, 2017

Ainge’s Plan A Lasts Less Than Six Minutes

But, Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Robert Burns, 1785

The legend is that the Bard of Ayrshire wrote “To a Mouse,” the familiar next-to-last stanza of which appears above, after accidentally destroying a mouse’s nest while ploughing his fields in southwest Scotland. Burns’s brother went so far as to claim that the poem was conceived on the spot, while Burns still held the plough.

However the verse came to be, Danny Ainge, Brad Stevens and fans of the Boston Celtics are now acutely aware of the bitter truth contained in those old lines written by a young Scot, for they are a firm reminder that in sports, as in life, no amount of calculation and planning can guarantee a sure result.

As noted here just two months ago, Boston fans cheered when general manager Ainge finally saw fit to part with some of the plethora of potential he had obtained in various trades, beginning with the wholesale fleecing of the Brooklyn Nets for the aging Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in 2013. With that and subsequent deals Ainge’s stockpile of draft picks and young players – assets, as he often refers to them – grew, but he repeatedly passed up opportunities to exchange some of them for a proven star.

Celtics fans grumbled at each perceived missed opportunity, but the disappointment turned to delight when Ainge sent star point guard Isaiah Thomas along with three of the assets, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and a first round pick in next year’s draft to Cleveland in exchange for All-Star Kyrie Irving, who scored the basket that won the 2016 NBA title for the Cavaliers. Irving longed to escape Cleveland, where he played in the oversized shadow of LeBron James, for a new team where he would be the focal point. The trade made him part of a new Big Three at the TD Garden, with center Al Horford and the Celtics’ prize free agent signing, former Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward. The 27-year old, who played his two seasons of college basketball under Stevens at Butler, was the most highly coveted player eligible for free agency in the recent offseason.

Boston’s record has improved every year since Stevens arrived in the summer of 2013, with the team winning 53 games in the regular season and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals last year. But there the Celtics appeared overmatched while losing to the Cavaliers, four games to one. Ainge’s reshaping of the roster and the arrivals of Irving and Hayward gave fans hope that their team might finally be ready to join the NBA’s elite.

Perhaps in time that hope will be realized, but the Celtics immediate prospects shifted dramatically just five minutes and fifteen seconds into the new season on Tuesday night. The opening game against Cleveland, billed as a rematch of the Conference Finals and featuring Irving’s return to his former arena, took on a wholly different storyline when Hayward landed awkwardly on his left foot after trying to convert an alley-oop play on a pass from Irving. Television viewers and the sold-out crowd at Quicken Loans Arena saw Hayward’s ankle bend most unnaturally as he collapsed to the hardwood. Players on both squads were visibly shaken by the gruesome injury, which proved to be a fractured tibia and dislocated ankle.

Hayward was taken to the locker room on a stretcher. He was later flown back to Boston, where Wednesday evening he underwent what a team release described as “successful bony and ligamentous stabilization surgery” at New England Baptist, one of the country’s premier orthopedic hospitals. While the Celtics’ statement said there “is no timetable for his return,” the one certainty is that it won’t be this season. And while the press release also assured fans that Hayward is “expected to make a full recovery,” there is no guarantee, given the devastating nature of the injury, that he will return to the All-Star level of performance that led the Celtics to offer him a four-year, $128 million contract.

With one-third of their new Big Three gone, the Celtics quickly fell behind the Cavaliers, trailing by as many as eighteen in the second quarter. Boston rallied, nudging ahead late in the third quarter and leading by three with just over two minutes to play. But from there Cleveland closed on a 7-1 run, winning 102-99. One night later the Celtics were back in Boston for their home opener. Fans cheered a video message from Hayward played on the Jumbotron before the start of the game. But the contest against the Milwaukee Bucks gave the TD Garden faithful little reason to applaud, as Boston faded late for the second night in a row. Leading 89-86 with about seven minutes remaining, the Celtics were outscored 11-1 over the next four minutes. From there the Bucks coasted to a 108-100 victory.

Two games out of eighty-two are scarcely definitive, but the sabermetric projection at FiveThirtyEight.com now forecasts a sub-.500, 37-win season for Boston. If that proves accurate the Celtics won’t be contending for a title because they will almost certainly miss the playoffs.

Boston’s actual record will be determined by the team’s play on the court rather than a computer algorithm. Much is now going to be asked of two very young Celtics, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. In his second season after being chosen by Boston with the third overall pick in the 2016 draft, the 20-year old Brown is showing early promise. With 25 points against Cleveland and 18 against Milwaukee, he’s been the leading Boston scorer in the first two games. In that miniscule sample, he’s also shooting 50% from the floor. Tatum, a year younger than Brown and the third overall pick in this year’s draft, was expected to fill a reserve role in his rookie year. Now he will see many more minutes than planned and must mature in a hurry.

If Brown and Tatum both grow into their suddenly expanded roles, taking some of the pressure off Irving, the Celtics may yet have a winning season. Brad Stevens has proven adept at getting the most out of whatever roster he is given, so perhaps he will find a way to guide his squad to the playoffs. But for Celtics fans, after all of Ainge’s dramatic offseason moves, dreams of an 18th title run became dreams deferred less than six minutes into the new season. You know what they say about best-laid plans.

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