At a recent Celtics home game against the Miami Heat, a fan sitting in the lower bowl appeared intent on giving Gordon Hayward a hard time. Each missed shot, the fan jeered Hayward. Each time he hesitated on a drive, the fan shook his head, each turnover, he shrugged and yelled his disapproval.
Finally, a longtime Celtics season ticket-holder rose and told the fan to lay off Hayward. He pleaded with the disgruntled fan to be patient, give the recovering player some time. The fan responded by saying Hayward makes $30 million per season and should be giving more.
Hence the dilemma Celtics faithful have regarding Hayward. There are a growing number of fans who are getting restless with Hayward’s production, despite the fact he missed all but five minutes of the 2017 season with a broken tibia and dislocated left ankle.
On Monday against the Nets, another heckler showed his displeasure for Hayward, screaming “Good 2 points, Gordon!” late in the Celtics’ win. Hayward finished with 2 points on 1-for-6 shooting and had three turnovers in the 102-94 win.
And just when it appeared he had overcome his early-season struggles and hesitations in attacking the basket, Hayward is averaging 7.4 points on 11-for-34 shooting (32.3 percent) and 1-for-12 shooting from the 3-point line. And he has scored 2 points in each of the past two games, including last Saturday’s showdown against the Golden State Warriors.
What’s even more frustrating for Celtics fans is that many of Hayward’s looks are wide open. Opposing defenses aren’t bothering to guard him on the perimeter. On Monday, he airballed an open 3-pointer.
There are some Celtics faithful maintaining their patience with Hayward, while others are calling for more playing time for second-year forward Semi Ojeleye, who is a better defender than Hayward and more aggressive in attacking the basket.
The Celtics need an improved and more confident Hayward come April, but transformation is a difficult process. It’s frustrating for Hayward because he’s visibly tired of answering the same questions about his lack of consistency.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens is steadfast about giving his former Butler pupil as much opportunity to flourish as possible. At least that’s the plan.
“I think you just got to keep playing him and ultimately he’s going to have some ups and downs and he’s had a couple of games where the ball didn’t go in as much,” Stevens said after Monday’s win. “I thought he was active, I thought he did some good things, and when that ball goes in he’ll feel a lot better and it will look a lot better on paper. Ultimately, we got a lot of wings, a lot of other wings played more [Monday] and against Golden State, but there are going to be nights where we are counting on him to close the game because he really got it rolling.”
Hayward is actually having his best month since he returned. He is averaging 11.5 points on 46.2 percent shooting. But his highs have been high, and the lows have been low. He is 1-for-11 shooting in the past two games with four turnovers.
When the Celtics desperately needed all their players at a high level against the Warriors, Hayward was o-for-5 shooting and a minus-8. And when they needed bench production to keep the lead against the Brooklyn Nets, Hayward was 1 for 6 for 2 points.
The Celtics enter Wednesday’s game against Charlotte with a 6.3-point differential, but Hayward’s plus-minus is only 1.7, meaning the Celtics are a better team with him off the floor.
Hayward is bewildered. He was an All-Star before the injury, and now he’s just trying to become a consistent reserve. The drop-off is apparent and painful, and Hayward is just trying to keep his fortitude and determination.
“I think it’s a process, and I gotta stay patient,” he said. “I gotta put my head down and keep working. It’s obviously frustrating. I’ve certainly had shooting slumps in the past. It’s nothing new. You go through stretches like that. I think you move on from a game like this the same way you move on from a really good game.
“Some days are diamonds. Some days are stones. Sometimes you have a couple of stones in a row. I said it after I had a good game, try not to get too high on the highs or too low on the lows.”
But Hayward wants more out of himself, and so do the Celtics faithful. His importance to the Celtics is unquestioned as the competition intensifies. They were a couple of made Hayward baskets from beating the Warriors.
Once upon a time, Stevens envisioned Hayward playing point forward, running the offense with Kyrie Irving shifting to shooting guard and Al Horford stretching the floor as big man 3-point shooter. Hayward has displayed some semblance of those play-making skills this season but hasn’t been consistent. Neither has his dribble penetration or 3-point shot.
It’s been a transition year for Hayward. Many didn’t want to believe his return to significance would take so long, and some fans are fed up with his bumpy road. But for now, Hayward will continue to get opportunities, get his chances until he becomes a steady asset.
Stevens has figured the best way to get Hayward back to his All-Star form is maintaining confidence and faith. He is just hoping that eventually pays off.