After Celtics practice ended Thursday, forwards Gordon Hayward and Semi Ojeleye came up with a shooting game they called “Basketball Jeopardy.” The two took turns creating a category of shot — such as re-spacing to an area of the court after a bad pass — and then took 10 shots in that category, with the winner earning a point.
Hayward drilled one shot after another, and looked quite comfortable. As he continues to regain his rhythm after missing all but five minutes of last season with a left ankle injury, his jump shot is one of the first things to finally feel normal again.
But some other things do not, and that has made it challenging for Hayward to fire away and attack the way he knows he can.
“I think there are times I feel good out there on the court,” Hayward said. “And then there are other times where I feel a little lost, like I’m just floating out there.”
Hayward, who has been coming off the bench since the Nov. 19 win against the Bulls, is averaging just 8.9 shots per game, sixth on the team. He has acted more as a playmaker than a scorer, and while passing is an important part of his game, scoring is, too. And he would like to get back to that.
After Wednesday’s practice, point guard Kyrie Irving even reminded Hayward what he is capable of and what this team needs from him.
“I told him, ‘Look for your shot more,’ ” Irving said Thursday. “Get aggressive and get yourself going, because you are a great talent in this league and I don’t want you to ever forget that.’
“Of course, he does a great job of coming off the pick-and-roll and making those passes, but I want him to be aggressive and score the basketball for us as well, because we’re going to need it.”
Hayward nodded when he was asked about Irving’s comments.
“I need to just be more aggressive for myself, which I think it will help our team out,” he said. “I’m trying to make the right play a lot of times and sometimes that gets me in trouble. It’s about imposing my will on the game, and sometimes you just have to go attack it. I need to do more of that.”
Specifically, Hayward said, he would like to do a better job of getting to the rim and forcing contact, an issue that has plagued the Celtics. As a team, they are averaging just 19.3 free throws per game, ranking 29th in the NBA.
Hayward averaged 6.0 free throws per game over his final three seasons with the Utah Jazz but is taking just 2.1 this year. He said the downturn stems from his reluctance to attack on his surgically repaired ankle, but he added that he is now finally reaching the point where that issue is starting to subside.
“I need to get to the line more,” Hayward said. “It’s something I’ve always done in my career and I’m not doing it right now.
“I think it’s a confidence thing. It’s a confidence of when I go in there, knowing how to create the contact and not being afraid of it. I think it’s something I’ve just got to go do, and not be hesitant when I get in there.”
Although it is a small sample size, Hayward has sparked some success since switching to the second unit. In 108 minutes, the Celtics are outscoring opponents by an average of 9.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, and they have been outscored by 1.8 points per 100 possessions in 132 minutes with him on the bench.
This is a reversal from Hayward’s figures as a starter, when the Celtics had a 1.5 net rating with him on the court and a 7.0 rating with him on the bench. Of course, these figures factor in the four other players around him, too.
Hayward said that coach Brad Stevens told him he wanted to try bringing him off the bench, and Hayward said he was open to it, especially if he thought it would help the team win.
And for now, he said, he is still “finding his way.” But he continues to get more comfortable, and eventually envisions returning to a role befitting a player who signed a max contract last summer.
“I obviously want to be a starter,” Hayward said. “I feel like I am a starter in this league. But it’s something he wanted to try and I’m going to do whatever I can to help us.”
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Jaylen Brown (lower back bruise) and Al Horford (rest) have been ruled out of Friday’s game against the Cavaliers.