MINNEAPOLIS — Gordon Hayward had just finished his finest and most complete game as a Celtic in this 118-109 win over the Timberwolves, but there was still one moment remaining Saturday that he simply could not defend.
As he stood on the court and completed his postgame television interview, five of his teammates slithered up behind him with paper cups of Gatorade in their hands and mischief in their eyes. They dumped the cups on Hayward and hopped up and down afterward as if they had just won something bigger than a regular-season game against a .500 team on the first day of December.
Hayward’s 30-point, 9-rebound, 8-assist effort was impressive on its own, but the deeper significance was not lost, because his coach and teammates understand what he has been through to get here. After missing all but five minutes of last season because of a gruesome ankle injury, his return this year had been bumpy. He had appeared tentative and uneasy, and the former All-Star was even removed from the starting lineup.
“This has not been easy for him,” coach Brad Stevens said. “All he’s done is grit his teeth, been a great teammate and worked hard. I think there’s a lot to be said about that. The year didn’t start the way he wanted to. He’s not starting. But I think that he has helped set the example for what this team needs to be about, and I think hopefully we can build off it.”
Stevens said that Hayward had a dominant practice on Wednesday, and that he could sense a night like this was coming. And then, for the first time since arriving in Boston, Hayward truly resembled the player who signed a $128 million contract two summers ago.
He got to the foul line, he splashed 3-pointers, and he found his teammates with pinpoint passes time and again. Playing his second game in as many nights, Hayward was most dominant at the end, as he tallied 16 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists in the fourth quarter alone.
“It’s slowly coming along,” Hayward said. “I think my confidence is slowly coming back, too. I’m still not where I want to be, but for sure me attacking is better for our team, and not being hesitant and passive.”
Of course, this game had meaning for the Celtics beyond Hayward’s redemptive performance. After slogging to a 10-10 start that ignited numerous questions about this team’s resolve, Boston has now won three games in a row, including strong road wins against the Pelicans and these Timberwolves. The three victories have come by an average margin of 19.7 points.
There is still a long way to go, and there are still far tougher opponents lurking, but this is progress.
“Really, really a tough-minded, focused game,” Stevens said. “As much as we’ struggled earlier in the year with some of those things, in the last nine days or so we’ve been way better. I thought our guys really played together. They played hard.”
The Celtics were 21 for 21 from the foul line, they gathered 9 steals and had assists on 30 of their 40 baskets. Kyrie Irving added 21 points and 9 assists for the Celtics, and Irving could even deserve some credit for Hayward’s resurgence, after earlier in the week imploring the forward to shoot more.
“That’s just who he is, honestly,” Irving said. “It took him a little bit to get his rhythm.”
The Celtics withstood a powerful offensive performance from the rejuvenated Derrick Rose, who had 26 points on 11-of-18 shooting.
Boston stretched its lead to 72-58, its largest, on a 3-pointer by Jayson Tatum with 6:44 left in the third quarter. But Karl-Anthony Towns, who was held to just 5 points in the first half, kept his team within striking distance in the third, scoring 11 points to help Minnesota pull within 84-77 at the start of the fourth.
The Celtics led, 99-89, when Rose sparked a 10-0 run with a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws. But after the Wolves tied the score at 99, Boston answered with a quick 9-0 run of its own that was ignited by a Marcus Morris 3-pointer.
Minnesota made one last run, pulling within 103-101 with a pair of Robert Covington free throws with 3:31 left. But Hayward was fouled at the other end after getting position for an offensive rebound. He hit both free throws, and then with Boston leading by 6, he drilled a 3-pointer from the left arc before attacking for a layup with 1:59 to play that gave Boston a commanding 111-103 lead.
“Everybody wants to see him come back and be healthy,” Stevens said of Hayward, “especially everybody who knows what he’s been through.”