CLEVELAND — Boston’s Gordon Hayward broke his left ankle just five minutes into the season, a grisly injury that overshadowed Kyrie Irving’s return to Cleveland and the Cavaliers’ 102-99 win over the shocked Celtics on Tuesday night.
LeBron James scored 29 points — 13 in the fourth quarter — in his most extensive action in three weeks because of a sprained left ankle. He also fed Kevin Love for a critical 3-pointer with 46.3 second left to put the Cavs up 102-98.
Irving, who asked to be traded this summer after six seasons in Cleveland, had a chance to tie it with a 3-pointer at the horn but missed. Irving then shared a warm embrace with James, his teammate for three seasons.
Irving finished with 22 points for the Celtics, who overcame an 18-point deficit in the third and led with 2:04 left. Boston’s guard was also called for a technical.
Hayward, who signed a four-year, $128 million free agent contract with the Celtics this summer, was bumped by James while trying to catch an alley-oop pass with 6:45 left in the first quarter. The forward’s leg got twisted underneath him as he came back to the floor and snapped his ankle grotesquely.
The 27-year-old sat up, looked at his foot and yelled in horror while some players covered their mouths and others turned their heads.
Hayward’s stunning injury changed the tenor of the highly anticipated season opener between two of the league’s best teams, and will likely alter the direction of Boston’s season. Hayward will require surgery and need months to recover.
The Celtics were understandably shaken at halftime, and went to the locker room down 16.
However, they battled back and were still leading 98-97 when James, who only played in one exhibition after spraining his ankle on Sept. 27, spun in the lane and made a layup to put Cleveland up by one. On Boston’s next possession, James cut off Marcus Smart and deflected the ball off the guard’s leg and out of bounds.
James then made a crosscourt pass to a wide-open Love, who drained his 3 to give the Cavs a four-point cushion.
Irving’s free throw made it 102-99, and the Celtics had two late chances but both Jaylen Brown and Irving missed late 3s.
Love had 15 and Derrick Rose 14 in his debut for the Cavs, who are trying to blend new faces and big egos quickly.
After the final horn, James and Irving, who spent part of the summer making subtle jabs at each other following the blockbuster trade, completed their signature handshake and the All-Star point guard greeted several former teammates.
He may still have a ways to go with Cleveland’s crowd, which booed him every time he touched the ball.
Irving heard it from the moment he took the floor as Cleveland fans got their first chance to voice their displeasure toward him for demanding to be traded this summer despite three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals and one title.
But Hayward’s injury took some of the bite out of Cleveland’s crowd, which gave the forward a roaring ovation as he was taken off the floor on a stretcher.
When Hayward went down, Boston’s players huddled in prayer near their bench as a distressed James took a seat on the scorer’s table in disbelief. The injury was a reminder that there are no givens and games, seasons and careers can change in a blink.
Celtics: Coach Brad Stevens has been impressed with Irving’s basketball acumen and how quickly he has picked up Boston’s system. “He’s spent a lot of time watching film, a lot of extra time talking about it. He has good insights,” Stevens said. “Guys like that can fit in anywhere. It’s about how do we all put our strengths together.” … Marcus Morris (sore right knee) took part in pregame drills but is out for a week or more.
Cavaliers: James (28,816) passed numerous Hall of Famers while jumping to No. 7 on the career scoring list last season. He came in nearly 1,500 points behind Dirk Nowitzki at No. 6. … Although it may take some time for the Cavs to find their on-court chemistry, coach Tyronn Lue said that doesn’t change his early expectations. “We still expect to win,” he said. “We still expect to play hard and play the right way. It’s going to be a process and we understand that. As long as we play the right way, we’re focused on the right things, we’ll be fine.”
Celtics: Host Milwaukee on Wednesday. Boston closed out 2016 regular season with home win over Bucks.
Cavaliers: At Milwaukee on Friday. Cleveland has won four straight over Giannis Anteokounmpo and Co.