SALT LAKE CITY — Accepting change and moving on is key to everyone’s health and well-being. The Boston Celtics and Utah Jazz know this all too well. They redid their 2017-18 plans on the fly, improvising like mimes.
This season’s playoffs have revealed several things. First is that Jazz coach Quin Snyder and Boston’s Brad Stevens are no slouches. They produced seriously successful teams, despite sustaining damages along the way. The biggest revelation, though, was that there are at least two teams that actually didn’t need Gordon Hayward.
Claiming a trophy might be another matter, but in terms of looking respectable and winning impressively, they’ve done splendidly.
The Jazz fan base was apoplectic when Hayward left last summer as a free agent. In turn, Boston lost him to injury in his first game as a Celtic.
Hand it to Hayward, he struck while the iron was hot, signing a four-year, $128 million contract. He’ll never have to ask for a price check on anything. But almost a year after his big decision, he has to be wondering: Was it something he said?
Both Utah and Boston continued into the season unfazed, as though he hadn’t mattered. Boston finished with the second-best record in the East. The Jazz went 29-6 over the last part of the season. In neither case does that mean they’re actually better without him, unless a team can dismiss a 22-point scorer. But they’re not suffering, either.
The pain train has left the station.
Hayward envy took on a serious tone last year after the Jazz finished the playoffs. It was the team’s first postseason appearance in four years. The Jazz were set for their future, if only they could get Hayward to stay. Over the years, he had professed love for the fans and playing for Snyder, but he never actually said he wanted to stay. That’s the opposite of this summer’s unrestricted free agent, Derrick Favors.
It was fitting that on Independence Day, Hayward celebrated his independence by signing with Boston.
So the Jazz went to work. They had already added Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell and later executed a multi-team trade that sent Rodney Hood to Cleveland and brought in Jae Crowder. They molded Royce O’Neale into a valuable reserve and nursed Dante Exum out of the training room. Joe Ingles upped his overall game and Rudy Gobert, after an early-season injury, got seriously defensive.
Concurrently, Boston already had assembled what looked like a conference contender, with Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, the two Marcuses and Terry Rozier. Hayward was supposed to be the flavor shot in the drink. Turns out both Brown and Tatum, draft picks the last two years, are arguably better than him. Irving, a five-time All-Star, has been out since March 11.
So, sans Hayward, the Jazz ended up winning their most playoff games since 2008, and the Celtics opened the conference finals by beating the LeStuffing out of LeBron and Co., going up 2-0.
The teams did their biggest damage on defense. Utah finished second in defensive rating during the regular season, Boston first. The Jazz were second in points allowed in the paint, Boston 11th. Utah was second in second-chance points allowed, Boston fourth. And the Jazz were first in opponent points off the break, the Celtics fifth.
Meanwhile, the teams tied for most mean mugs per 100 possessions.21 comments on this story
In both cases, they gave a wave to Hayward and said, “Get well soon!” before hustling off to crash the party.
Neither team thrived off high-octane offense, a la Houston or Golden State. They did it via spacing and sharing on offense, persistence and focus on defense, and hunkered in for a lot of sweaty, inelegant games.
Hayward’s attendance at last Saturday’s walk-through sent the Boston media into a temporary frenzy. General manager Danny Ainge said Hayward was running, cutting and jumping, but he won’t be playing in the postseason. But at this point it’s fair to ask: Has anyone even noticed?