Gordon Hayward was held scoreless in the Celtics’ loss to the Spurs on Monday. That game and that 0-for-6 shooting performance grated on him, so on Wednesday morning, Hayward went to the Celtics’ practice facility and completed a 45-minute shooting workout to get rid of the sour taste.
“The Spurs game definitely bothered me,” Hayward said. “I wanted to make sure that my shot felt good coming into tonight. Getting in the gym and seeing some shots go in just makes you feel a little better.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens could tell Hayward was locked in and had a sense that he would play well, but he did not really anticipate something like this. The forward made 14 of 18 shots and erupted for a season-high 35 points, guiding the Celtics to a 115-102 win over the Timberwolves.
This season has often been a struggle for Hayward, as he works to regain his form after missing all but five minutes of last year with an ankle injury. He has topped the 20-point mark just one other time this season, when he scored 30 at Minnesota on Dec. 1. So perhaps the only bad part of his night was the realization that his team will not play the Timberwolves anymore this season.
After the last game against the Wolves, there was a belief that perhaps Hayward had regained the All-Star form that had understandably abandoned him. But that was not true, as he scuffled through most of December, too. So there will be some reluctance to make assumptions this time, but the Celtics certainly hope this will be the start of a more prolonged surge.
“It lifts us up seeing him and everything that he’s been through,” guard Marcus Smart said, “and to see him keep fighting and come out here and finally feel comfortable is something this team needs moving forward.”
The Celtics on Wednesday were without point guard Kyrie Irving, who missed the game because of eye scratches he sustained in the loss to the Spurs. And Boston did not come through this game fully healthy, either.
The team received a scare early in the third quarter when Smart suffered a shoulder injury as he attempted to plow through a screen set by Minnesota big man Karl-Anthony Towns. Smart’s arm hung by his side as he hurried to the locker room, but he was ultimately diagnosed with just a strain and he returned to the game.
“I just got hit in the right spot, back of the shoulder blade,” Smart said. “It sent a sharp pain up to my neck area and that knocked the wind out of me a little bit. But everything is OK.”
Then in the fourth quarter Marcus Morris injured his neck after a fall. Morris, who left the game and did not return, said both his shoulder and his neck were stiff. He will be further evaluated on Thursday, but he is not especially concerned.
“Sore as hell,” Morris said. “It feels like I’ve got a crick in my neck. Should be cool.”
The Celtics made a season-high 59.2 percent of their shots and 12 of 30 3-pointers.
Towns had 28 points, 12 rebounds, and 7 assists for the Timberwolves. Minnesota was without three of its top six rotation players: Jeff Teague, Robert Covington, and Derrick Rose all sat with ankle injuries.
The Celtics used a 22-4 second-quarter run to pull away. Minnesota was held scoreless for 6 minutes, 15 seconds until Tyus Jones converted a runner with 3:31 left that brought his team within 47-29.
Hayward actually had a quiet start. His first points came on a 3-pointer with 9:23 left in the second quarter, but that ignited a 14-for-16 shooting surge. He also helped Boston maintain its lead by pouring in 10 points over a two-minute stretch, as the Celtics took a 60-42 halftime lead.
“Once he’s got it going like that,” Morris said, “it’s tough to stop us.”
For the second consecutive game, though, the Celtics were roughed up in a grisly third quarter. On Monday, the Spurs shredded them for 46 points, and on Wednesday the Celtics gave up 39 points when Minnesota made 16 of 23 third-quarter shots, helping it slice a 22-point deficit to 87-81 by the start of the fourth.
It would have been much worse for Boston if Hayward had not gone 7 for 8 and scored 15 points in the period to keep Boston’s offense humming. The Celtics led, 99-90, midway through the fourth when Hayward hit a 12-foot floater, drilled a 3 from the top of the key, and then fed Al Horford for an alley-oop that made it 108-92.
“As the season goes on, I think my movement is getting better,” Hayward said. “I think there are still so many things to work on. In two games, night and day. So consistency is going to be huge to have. It’s not games like this all the time, it’s just staying aggressive and attacking, as opposed to being passive.”