LaBron James (250056)
Credit: Bill Moore photo

When the Boston Celtics signed free-agent forward Gordon Hayward to a four-year, $128 million contract this past July, and then acquired point guard Kyrie Irving in a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers a little more than five weeks later, on paper, they instantly became a highly credible threat to the Cavaliers’ supremacy in the Eastern Conference.

Although the Celtics finished 53-29 last season, two games ahead of the 51-31 Cavaliers for the best record in the East, few thought the Celtics were ready to dethrone the defending conference champions. They were spot on as the Cavaliers easily handled the Celtics 4-1 in the conference finals. But this season was going to be different. That is until Hayward suffered a horrific injury five minutes into the Celtics’ much anticipated NBA season-opening game in Cleveland Tuesday night.

Rising to catch an alley-hoop pass near the Celtics’ basket, Hayward collided with LeBron James, who had also elevated to defend the pass, and fell hard onto the floor, dislocating his left ankle and fracturing his left tibia, dramatically and instantaneously crushing the Celtics’ hopes of making it back to Finals for the first time since 2010.

“You hurt for him. He’s put in a lot of great work. And I thought he had his most comfortable week as far as feeling like he was going to play really well,” said the understandably somber Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, who also coached Hayward in college at Butler. “But now we’ll hopefully get a full recovery, right? And so it’s a tough deal, but I guess that’s part of it, the risk of injury. I really feel for him.”

Stevens’ sentiments were felt across the broad sports landscape as players and coaches from professional and college teams expressed sadness and support for the 27-year-old Hayward. The Cavaliers’ 102-99 victory, for the moment, was irrelevant.

Now, the Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks move up a notch as the teams most likely to challenge the Cavaliers in the East. But as it stands today, none have the necessities from stopping LeBron James making his eighth consecutive trip to the Finals and fourth straight with the Cavaliers.

The Knicks open their season tonight (Thursday) against Carmelo Anthony and the Oklahoma City Thunder on the road. Their home opener will be this Saturday versus the Detroit Pistons. The Brooklyn Nets began their campaign last night in Indianapolis against the Pacers and will play their first home game of the season tomorrow night versus the Orlando Magic.