It was supposed to be the most anticipated game of the year.
The Boston Celtics against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
And then, Gordon Hayward’s ankle bent in a way that hadn’t been seen since the 1940s, back when Bugs Bunny mangled Yosemite Sam’s boot in an unmerciful, albeit animated way.
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.
Nobody — OK, a sordid few — around here took any sick pleasure from watching Hayward fall the way he did. It was painful for him and gruesome for everybody else, unfortunate for the Celtics. But Jazz fans still feel small pieces of rejection from a player who was so appreciated, so expertly tutored and groomed by coaches here, who owed — contrary to what so many said and despite his own strong efforts to improve — the Jazz more than the exit he gave them, ducking out down a back alley to Boston the way he did.
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.
It won’t be on account of Donovan Mitchell transforming himself in his rookie season into a better, more promising, more explosive player than Hayward ever was. His ceiling is higher than Hayward’s. His play more exciting. His athleticism, his talent, his popularity more profound.
And there’s no real revenge greater than simply replacing the dude who skipped town with a superior dude.
That’s precisely what the Jazz have done, all with one Rudy Gobert standing at the center of it all. Gobert was as critical and dismissive as anybody over Hayward’s jumping ship. It was no big deal, he said, as though he knew his former teammate was not that critical to what was being built here.
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.
Truth is, no Jazz fan would trade Mitchell for Hayward now. They might, for an instant, wonder what it all would look like if Hayward and Mitchell played together in Utah, along with Gobert.
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.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.