It was supposed to be the most anticipated game of the year.
The Boston Celtics against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
Hayward’s injury was most real. And he has yet to play since.
The revenge factor, the luster, then, has dulled a bit for Wednesday night’s matchup — but not as much as might otherwise be expected, not for the expected reason.
It could have been handled so much better by him, handled in a manner by which he still could have left to play for his college coach and simultaneously eased the departure for his former team by helping it win in the deal, too.
Instead … well, you know how it happened.
But Hayward’s injury — and his absence — are not the only reasons the rancor has simmered. The Jazz’s competitive emergence this season in spite of their only All-Star’s departure has cooled the boiling pot. If Hayward had been healthy to play and the Jazz were 28-46 instead of 42-32, the Viv might have been a viper pit on Wednesday night.
And there’s no real revenge greater than simply replacing the dude who skipped town with a superior dude.
He was right.
The Jazz have played better at points over the past two months than they did at any point last season with Hayward, even as they won 51 games and qualified for the playoffs for the first time in a fistful of years. It took them a while to get it all together, to gather the new parts assembled after Hayward removed himself, for Gobert to get healthy and for Mitchell to progress to his current state.
It took them time to convince Joe Ingles and Derrick Favors and Ricky Rubio and Royce O’Neale and Jae Crowder and all the rest that they could play together the way they have — especially at the defensive end, but also collectively at the offensive.
Most observers around the NBA, people who study the top pro league on the planet for a living, are surprised at the way the Jazz have bounced back. Some of them have confessed to not just appreciating what the Jazz have accomplished after losing Hayward and George Hill last offseason, but also, deep down, rooting for them as they’ve blown past lowered expectations.
There may be on Wednesday night some leftover, scattered bitterness, some thirst in fans for revenge against the club and the coach that lured away their former star.
But most of that is gone now.
The luster that remains on the home game against Boston has more to do with the Jazz needing another win in their quest for the playoffs than it does who the Jazz are playing. It could be anybody, any team, and the need for victory would be the same.
In the Jazz’s second-half surge, though, in the rookie’s development, the fretting over Hayward has diminished to a subterranean level. The greatest revenge already has been taken.
Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are the kings of this town.