Gordon Hayward, like every other NBA person on the planet, is excited for opening night. His new team, the Boston Celtics, will take on the defending Eastern Conference champions. And while Hayward has little history with LeBron James and company, new teammate Kyrie Irving certainly does.
Hayward was the subject of a Bleacher Report feature to get ready for the new season, and he had plenty to say about the first big test of the new-look Celtics. The former Utah Jazz star also talked about the increase in media attention he’s seen since signing with the Celtics in free agency.
But opening night loomed large over the conversation in more ways than one. Will the the new rosters for both teams click? Will it be emotional? And will LeBron James even play? Probably, but it adds that much more intrigue to the night.
“It’s gonna be an intense game,” Hayward told Bleacher Report. “It’s gonna be chippy, I’m sure. We want to come out and play our best basketball, but at the same time, not put too much weight on just one game. It’s the first game of the year. We’re gonna be trying to figure out who we are as a team.”
The big question is, as always, who is going to defend LeBron. Hayward says his role as a defensive stopper is clear, but it will be a group effort to stop someone as good and versatile as LeBron.
And what of King James? Will LeBron be his defensive assignment? “A lot of our defensive assignments are going to be LeBron,” he says laughing. Ainge agrees: “We have a lot of guys who can get that matchup. LeBron plays a lot of four, and he can play some five. I think that between Gordon and Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart—I think all of those guys will play against players like LeBron.”
To win in the modern NBA, one must slay the dragons atop each conference—Cleveland and Golden State. The key to stopping the Cavs is slowing down (forget about stopping) James, to make him work for everything.”You can’t let him get easy dunks, easy cuts to the rim, stuff at the free-throw line,” Hayward says. “If he’s making his threes, he’s almost impossible to stop. You want to make him test the jump shots. Easier said than done.”
All of that is easier said than done, but it goes a long way in explaining the value of a player like LeBron and how difficult he makes it on opposing defenses. Many teams in the NBA have the offensive firepower to keep pace with some of the more elite teams in the league, but defending, slowing down the weapons of the other team, is often much more difficult.
The season opener might not tell us much about whether the Cavs and Celtics can do that, but it will certainly set the tone for what will be a fascinating race in the East. Hayward, for his part, seems ready to do his part.