SAN ANTONIO — There are nights like Dec. 1 in Minneapolis, where the grinning Gordon Hayward dropped 30 points on the Minnesota Timberwolves and he appeared to be completely back.
And then there are nights like Dec. 21, where he missed 10 of 13 shots and looked scattered in the loss to Milwaukee.
On Saturday in Memphis, Hayward enjoyed one of his good days. He was running the floor with vigor, splashing 3-pointers from the corner, and looking as offensively aggressive as that night at the Target Center.
His return has been ragged at times, with Hayward doubting himself and whether he could contribute to the Celtics as much as he expected. But on Saturday, when he scored 14 points in the Celtics’ 112-103 victory, he was reinvigorated, and it reminded him how much fun the game is and how much fun he has with these guys when he’s engaged and relaxed.
“With each game, I get more comfortable playing with the guys,” he said following the team’s practice Sunday. “That’s the biggest thing, you gotta be able to have that experience with them on the court, to kind of know who you’re with, know who you’re playing with, just to know what everybody likes to do, try to maximize their strengths.
“Sometimes that’s running the break, sometimes we have a lot of ball handlers, so that’s just getting out on the wing and getting something easy at the rim.”
Hayward played 15 second-half minutes during the Celtics’ rally, when he was a plus-19. Celtics coach Brad Stevens has been giving Hayward quality minutes, especially in key rally moments.
And when the Celtics are truly invested, as they were in the second half, they are fun to watch.
“I think when we are playing urgent and assertive on offense, everyone’s touching the basketball, guys are cutting, making the right reads, that’s when basketball is the most fun,” Hayward said. “I really enjoyed it.”
Hayward, 28, missed all of last season with his broken left tibia and dislocated left ankle and he has spent most of this season trying to regain his confidence and get back into premium basketball shape. But he is also one of the veterans on team filled with youngsters, so leadership is almost mandatory. That is not lost on Hayward.
“For me, I’ve always been a leader by example, more than a leader with my voice,” Hayward said. “So I just try to make sure I’m a professional to some of these young guys, just try to teach to make sure you’re getting in the gym, getting your work in, doing your film and all that stuff that comes with being a professional basketball player, but also when I’m out there on the court, giving maximum effort.”
Also because of the Celtics’ depth, because of the emergence of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Hayward’s role has changed from what he expected when he signed after seven years with the Utah Jazz. First off, the Celtics traded for Kyrie Irving less than two months after Hayward signed and then Tatum and Brown turned into cornerstones while playing Hayward’s similar position.
Going into last season, he was expected to be the team’s second-leading scorer after Irving. Now, he is expected to be a consistent contributor with occasional nights like he enjoyed in Minneapolis. He has already accepted a bench role after starting the first 15 games.
“This is definitely more similar to what I was doing early on in Utah, as opposed to what I did late in Utah,” he said. “But I think that’s just the nature of who we have on the team and the amount of the guys that can do different things. So, I think, depending on the night, I’m asked to do different things. But it’s definitely different from when I was in Utah.”
Hayward is averaging 11.4 points per game this month as his scoring average continues to increase as he becomes more comfortable with the team and with his body. Equally as important is Hayward is becoming more of a 3-point threat, shooting 38.1 percent this month. The Celtics have thirsted for more consistent outside shooting.
What will be Hayward’s role in March or April? It’s still unknown. He said he has accepted that this first season back will be a day-to-day process. Some days the shots are falling. Some days they don’t. Some days the ankle’s a little sore. Other days, he is springy.
“It definitely required a lot of patience, even still,” he said. “I’m still finding my rhythm. Like I was saying, with knowing who I’m out there on the court with, what I’m going to be asked to do, and what the team needs me to do. Patience is a good word for that.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.